[Rape Culture’s] most devilish trick is to make the average non-criminal person identify with the person accused, instead of the person reporting the crime… – Kate Harding, ‘Asking For It’
This book is timely, insightful, and a page-turner. This is a book that will appeal to a wide audience, and will get people talking. And thinking: How would you react if someone you loved and trusted was charged with the worst of crimes? The Best Kind of People is an examination of rape culture; what it looks like and how it affects us, the victims as well as the accused.
No one saw it coming.
Everyone loves George. He’s a charming and generous family man; everyone’s favourite teacher at the school. He has a devoted wife and a loving son and daughter. So, when he is arrested for several counts of sexual assault and attempted rape, everyone is shocked. Everyone’s first reaction is denial. But, over time, the doubt begins to creep in. His daughter, Sadie, feels it first, along with guilt and shame. What if?
… if even a portion of the allegations against him were true, then what would her support mean? She was hit with a powerful surge of guilt. When your family needs you, you should be there.
“But his blood is in mine… What if he is guilty? What would that make me?”
Then again, what if he’s innocent? There is still irreparable damage done either way. Even if found innocent, it would be hard to go back to the way things were before. Never again would there be a sense of safety and peace of mind.
For months Joan would replay this moment, trying to decipher the look on her husband’s face. Was it guilt? Confusion? Indignation? Stoicism? Acting? But nothing, not even a revolving camera of omniscience, a floating momentary opportunity to narrate, would allow anyone to truly understand the truth about George. He became a hard statue, an obstacle, a symbol. // The father and the husband, from that moment, had been transformed.
Not knowing felt worse than knowing something for sure, even something terrible.
With the shifting of perspective between the three family members, (George’s wife Joan, their older son Andrew, and their 17-year-old daughter Sadie), Whittall manages to bring us three different standpoints. Sadie who has doubts from the beginning, Joan who is a full supporter and so desperate to have things back to the way they were, and Andrew who tries to remain neutral but feels the tremendous pressure. I was struck by how realistically she was able to have these three family members with their own, often differing, thoughts on the case still be able to come together and support each other despite their differences, rather than be torn apart. They did not always get along, they did not always agree, but there was always love.
“You don’t stop loving someone in an instant because someone accuses them of something despicable. Nothing is that black and white.”
Nothing is that black and white. And Whittall takes this and runs with it. There is so much grey in this book that you will want to hash it all out; in your own head and with someone else. Aside from the question of George’s guilt and all the questions it holds for his family, the book addresses issues of victim blaming and rights for men. When you see the result of these young girls speaking up, it becomes very clear as to why so many of them just don’t. The public attention and ridicule doesn’t seem worth it.
“Your father is a symbol of all that feminism has done to cause hysteria on this world. Hysteria has become law! Feminists show specific signs of mental illness, and you can see, this is what happens when these women get too much power. Innocent men go to jail because girls aren’t taught anything about being decent and responsible human beings. They are taught they can do anything, and deserve special treatment, and men have to pay for it.”
What I liked best in this book was Joan’s point of view as the long-time wife of George and mother of two children who she had to keep herself held together for (most of the time). As you might expect, her feelings and thoughts were all over the place. And then she also had to take in and register everyone else’s feelings and thoughts on it all; her children, her friends, her co-workers, and her sister (who had strong opinions on the subject, and wasn’t afraid to tell Joan what she thought). She had to take all this in, hold it all together, while trying to sort out her own feelings and try to put some semblance of a life back together. How do you reconcile with the fact that all you’ve ever known and trusted in life is suddenly in doubt? She went through the whole gamut of emotions; guilt, shame, a sense of betrayal, loss of control, lack of trust (in anyone). I felt everyone’s pain, and I will not deny that there were tears.
“You’re feeling ashamed, but you shouldn’t. This is not your fault.” // “I am not ashamed,” Joan spat at her. The truth was that the shame Joan felt was so expansive and so forceful that it couldn’t be something described by as few as five letters, something so commonplace. This was something else entirely. “A word doesn’t even exist for what I’m feeling,” Joan mumbled.
“And that is the entirety of the life lesson I have learned from this experience. No one has control. At all.”
And, the ending. The ending will keep you awake at night. Is it satisfying? Is it revolting? Is it inconceivable? Is it what most of us would have done? What would I have done? I know what I would have liked myself to have done, but that’s not the same thing. I didn’t know what to think. I confess to feeling a strange sense of relief that disgusted and confused me. However it is that you feel about it, you will all want to talk about it.
Heavy stuff, right? Except that the way Whittall writes doesn’t feel too heavy. It feels effortless and conversational. She even throws in some humour to lighten things up.
Are you serious? might be the dumbest thing people say, as a way to buy time to let very serious things sink in.
Andrew hadn’t thought about Stuart for years, and really only mentioned him when anyone asked him for his “coming out” story, which rarely happened anymore. Younger guys didn’t seem to have that ritual of exchanging stories of revelation, denial, acceptance, estrangement. These days they seemed to say, “What? I’ve always been gay. Here I am in day care in my Glad to be gay! onesie. What are you harping about, old guy?”
This book is written mostly from the point of view of the family of the accused, who are an upper-class white family. One thing I would like to have seen is more of a focus on the victims and their families. But that’s not the story the author chose to tell. She did touch on it, and it was an interesting twist to have the sister of Sadie’s best friend be one of the victims. In any case, there is still much to devour and ponder in this book; some things I haven’t even touched on in this review. I highly recommend it.
Best line: Outside, the leaves appeared to have reddened overnight, going mad alongside her.
Thank you to House of Anansi for providing me with a copy of this book for review!
For more information about Zoe Whittall and her other works, visit her website.
“Zoe Whittall might just be the cockiest, brashest, funniest, toughest, most life-affirming, elegant, scruffy, no-holds-barred writer to emerge from Montreal since Mordecai Richler…”
– The Globe and Mail
Review in The Globe & Mail: The Best Kind of People arrives at exactly the right moment
“I’m happy with how it turned out, but I feel, like every writer, you imagine how you could continue to write it forever.”
Review at the National Post: Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People delves into rape culture with a family broken by secrets
“Despite the plot’s real-world resonances, The Best Kind of People’s strength is in its commitment to the people themselves – tracking their shared and individual psychology over time, neither mindlessly sympathetic nor sadistic. Although invested in the politics at work, Whittall also observes and dissects filial loyalty, to profound effect.”
38 thoughts on “Shadow Giller: The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall”
This sounds like the perfect book club book. It reminds me of a sad recent case that hit close to home: a venerable member of my husband’s old neighbourhood was charged with child sex abuse. Shock and sadness everywhere, even for those of us just caught in the ripple effect.
It would be perfect for a book club!
It’s scary to think of all the cases similar to this – and the ones no one even knows about (yet).
This sounds extraordinary, Naomi. I don’t think I’ve ever come across this theme in fiction before. I’ve often wondered how it must feel for the family and friends of those who commit heinous crimes. The instant reaction is to think of the victims’ families but the perpetrators’ have the own particular hell to live through.
Now that you mention it, I haven’t read anything like it before either. You’re right that most stories tend to focus on the victims. It’s a fascinating perspective – the fact that the accused’s family are victims of another sort.
They are, and subject to the kind of opprobrium that makes them outcasts.
Wow. This book sounds really, really good (and I agree with Rebecca–perfect for a book club. If only I had one!). Love the Kate Harding quote!
You’ll have to start one just for this book! 🙂
Kate Harding also wrote a blurb for it.
This one sounds like another real winner. It’s already on my TBR list. I’m curious to see how it fares in comparison to the other shortlisted books.
I am too! I’m starting to get worried about having to actually choose one. 🙂
Excellent review. I like a book that makes me think. I’ll order it now,
Thanks, Brian! I hope you like it!
I wasn’t really planning on reading this book, but right when I started reading your post I was like “I have to read this book!” Even just reading your post made me angry! That quote from Joan about feminism ruining everything. AHHHHHH.
A Giller prize nominee that I want to read on purpose – what have you done to me?
Haha! I think you’d like this one, Eva. And I’d love to read your review of it!
And, just to clarify, it’s not Joan who is giving the mini-lecture about feminism. I like Joan. 🙂
Went tootling off to Amazon only to find it’s not available here – boo! I shall keep an eye out for it – sounds very powerful. It’s such a difficult subject – one of the only crimes where often the only evidence is the word of the victim, and everyone having to decide who they believe.
Yes, it’s all he said/she said. I really wasn’t sure what was going to happen. And for so many of the characters, there is already damage done that can’t be completely undone.
Hopefully the book will eventually be available over there!
Oooh – this one sounds so good and I’m guessing would make a fantastic book club selection. Seems there would be lots to discuss. Added it to my TBR.
Good to hear! There is so much to discuss! It’s a timely and important conversation.
I didn’t have this on my TBR but your review is making me reconsider it!
It’s very good. I think you’d like it!
Oh, this sounds intense and definitely something I’d love to read. I volunteered many years ago as a rape hotline counselor and for most of my life the survivor’s story was the one I was interested in. And I still am. But as the mother of a boy – as good and decent as he is – I can’t help but think about both sides of the issue. Thanks for this review, Naomi!
Considering all the stories you must have heard, I think you’d find this especially good, Cecilia!
And, yes, having a son has me thinking about how to “teach” about respect and consent without being too overbearing/paranoid about it.
My husband volunteers as a scout leader where the rules are quite strict about leaders being alone with the kids, one-on-one. My husband always makes sure that there are witnesses around at all times, so there is never a situation where it’s one person’s word against another. On the one hand, I’m glad the rules are so strict and that he is so careful. But another part of me is sad that it has to be that way.
What an intriguing review, Naomi. In going to recommend my book club read this one next!
That sounds great! I would love to hear about your discussions if you decide to read it!
I’m #89 on the hold list at my library! I think I may have to buy it. Thanks for another wonderful review. I feel like you’ve tripled your reading over the last few months.
I guess the good news is that the book is doing well 🙂
I think it always seems like I’m reading a lot more in the fall, because I’ve also been catching up on summer books. But, I have been reading some good ones!
This sounds so good! Reading Missoula and considering the way punishment from rape is so light and the way family and friends stood by people who seemed obviously guilty to me, I was interested in the family perspective. It’s not something you get in that book and I think this fictional look at that side of things would make for a great read.
It really is a unique perspective on it. The family’s feelings and thoughts about it were all over the place all the time, and I really felt awful for them.
Glad you reviewed this one. The author was supposed to come here for the book festival this week but has just cancelled. I hope it’s not a family emergency. Focusing on the accused’s family seems a bold perspective — when everyone wants to side with the victim. I think it affects a wide circle around both. hmm
In this book there were an awful lot of people who wanted to side with the accused, maybe because he was a well-regarded citizen of the town. It really put an interesting spin on the issue.
I love the way you’ve addressed the ending, which is such an important part of this story, without directly addressing it. It made me want to stop everything and reread immediately. And I might, yet, do just that!
I still want to run around and ask everyone what they would do if… Although, I’m not sure I could believe them unless they had been in that exact situation.
Ooohhh reading your review has made me so excited to read this book. I’m hosting the Giller Light party in Calgary so I have to read it ASAP!!!
Ps-I had no idea you were part of the Shadow Giller Jury, I was friends with Kevin, I used to visit him at home and chat books when I worked at Wordfest. What a small book world we live in 🙂
I felt pretty honoured to join the jury this year. I hear Kevin was a great guy – I wish I could have known him. 🙂
I think you will like this one!! Have fun hosting the Giller Light party – are we going to get to hear about it?