February 06, 2014

Such a Curious Creature (Review: Finding Jennifer Jones by Anne Cassidy)

Finding Jennifer Jones
Anne Cassidy
Hot Key Books 2014

Finding Jennifer Jones is the follow up to Anne Cassidy's excellent Looking for JJ. As such, this review contains minor spoilers (although none would necessarily ruin the experience of reading the initial book). If you haven't read Looking for JJ, but would like to know more about it before reading this, you can find an excellent review of it courtesy of Caroline at Portrait of a Lady - just click here

Meet Kate, university student, tourist information officer, all round ordinary girl.  Prior to University, Kate lived and worked in Croydon, where she was known as Alice. Prior to Croydon, Alice lived in a Facility, where she was known as Jennifer Jones. Prior to the Facility, Jennifer Jones, ten years of age, killed her best friend.  But for now, Kate is just Kate - getting on with her life, trying to forget.  Yet, she can't quite let go of her ten year old self and finds herself drawn to the only other person present on that fateful day, Lucy Bussell. At the same time, local events see Kate back in the police spotlight, wondering whether the future she hopes for can make its way through her murky past and whether she deserves a future that she so obviously denied someone else.

As in Looking for JJ, Kate isn't the most accessible character. While not as entirely disconnected as she was as Alice, there is still a degree of the institutionalised about her.  She's not unkind but is certainly removed, never seen more than in her social life where she drinks, flirts, has sex but never commits emotionally to anyone or anything. However, she's getting better, even in her sullen encounters with her probation officer it is possible to see that there may really be light at the end of this very long tunnel - were it not for the spectre of Jennifer Jones. Understandably, Kate has trust issues with others but primarily she has them with herself. Her inner life seems to be a miasma of repentance and self-loathing even as she argues that she cannot be blamed for the actions of her childhood.  It's a decent argument but it is clear that, at heart, Kate doesn't really believe it. Ultimately, her desire to contact Lucy screams of a desire to find the child that she was and take ownership of her own past - one that is still filled with a deep denial in terms of her upbringing.  While this creates a somewhat unreliable narrator, as Kate moves towards Jennifer Jones, we see a strong young woman emerging from a broken childhood, damaged but living on her own terms. Whether she ever becomes a sympathetic character will be up to the individual reader but she is an utterly compelling and believable one.

Finding Jennifer Jones has few other characters, but worthy of mention are Kate's probation officer, Julia and Lucy Bussell. Julia rather beautifully sums up the contradictory feelings of distaste and sympathy that readers may feel towards Kate.  A woman doing a job that at times makes her deeply uncomfortable but who does her best because it is the Right Thing.  Lucy, last seen at age eight, is rather perfectly written - the sixteen year old acutely inhabiting the younger child in a way that is both heartening and heart-breaking.  Her naivety has been replaced by a gormless kindness and the scenes in which she appears are fascinating.

The plot of Finding Jennifer Jones is simply that. Kate is trying to find herself, to make sense of her past and understand both who she was then and who she is now.  It's well written, particularly Kate's ongoing denial regarding her mother.  As she finds herself increasingly unable to ignore aspects of her previous life, the novel develops a slight subplot that allows a degree of closure and feeds Kate's desire to repent and move on even as understands that this may never be fully possible.  At heart, this is a novel about identity and self-awareness but it is also more than that.  Like Looking for JJ, it is a book that asks readers to look deeply at their own prejudices and beliefs. Jennifer Jones might be an all grown up, functioning member of society when we look at her now but do we still see a child killer? Or a woman who has overcome a terrible mistake born of a troubled past?  

Years ago, I read both The Case of Mary Bell and Cries Unheard by the excellent journalist, Gitta Sereny.  The very true story of Mary Bell clearly informed Anne Cassidy's story and Sereny's books riff on similar ideas - not least nature versus nuture but also the idea that we, as a society, don't know how to deal with children killing children, don't know what to do with them, how to look at them, how to understand them.  Both books would make fascinating reading for those still pondering these questions after finishing Finding Jennifer Jones.  And you will be pondering, because Anne Cassidy has followed the stunning Looking for JJ with an equally extraordinary exploration of the adult Jennifer. These are books that are important because they ask us to look at society but also at ourselves. They should be applauded, and taught and pressed into the hands of as many people as possible. Highly, highly recommended.



This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Finding Jennifer Jones is out today.  Thank you to the publisher for sending us a copy of this title to review.



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