Cassandra Sharp, Kate Smith’s The Negligents (Valley Press, 2018) (Book Review)
Review of “The Negligents” by Kate Smith
The Negligents is a thought-provoking tale about the intricacies of life stories that are woven through the fabric of time. In this debut novel from Kate Smith, we are introduced to two key characters – friends Grace and Polina – as they navigate friendship, family and self-identity.
Told through the prism of a legal negligence claim, The Negligents tells a character driven story. This may be surprising to some – those who expect a novel framed by a law claim to be dispassionate, dreary and devoid of the human element. However, as law and humanities scholars well understand, too often distinctions between law, stories and emotions are blurred. As a lawyer herself, Kate Smith knows this well, and her characters embody this intersection. As such, the use of legal principles within the framework of negligence to structure the chapters of the book, is not complicated. Instead, each aspect ties in with an element of loss and damage that the characters are experiencing. You see, within a negligence claim, stories of conflict, loss and damage inevitably intertwine with law, and this makes it the perfect frame within which to view the avalanche of emotions that accompany the stories of these two girls.
Particularly using the framework of carelessness which is at the heart of a negligence claim, Kate Smith challenges us to think through the ‘damage’ that is caused when we neglect our friendships. Filled with sadness, yet occasional humour, the book presents real characters who have to deal with the messiness of love, life and loss. The relationship between Grace and Polina is intense and real, and their intersecting progression from childhood, to adolescence and then into adulthood is portrayed using tactile imagery and poignant elicitations that belie subtle insecurities and doubts. Each character brings a different perspective to the probing questions Kate Smith raises with her novel: ‘How do I navigate family relationships when I’ve been hurt?’, ‘Who really is to blame for the loss I am experiencing?’ and ‘how can we truly look after friendships?’.
To successfully make the reader ask themselves these questions, Kate Smith doesn’t pull any punches with the realism. There is deep sadness, bitterness that comes from sustained hurt and loss, grief, and regret over life choices. Such ‘damage’, we learn, can result from the toxic nature of carelessness and the cumulative impact of selfishness. Yet, at various moments in the book, we catch a glimpse of the repentance, redemption and ultimate restoration that is possible when we forgive, let go or simply hold onto friendship and love.
I found the book an easy and engaging read, and I was immersed in the narrative from start to finish. One small disappointment was with the denouement, in which (without giving any spoilers), secrets were unrevealed and identities unrealised. However, by playing around with the traditional storytelling format (using legal claims, short summations, screenplay dialogue), the novel enables the reader to experience diversity of perspective while simultaneously questioning how they themselves might be affected by similar causation in their lives, and this is by far more important. As one particular character (a law teacher) says: ‘In law, as in life, it is human nature to be interested in causation.’ As we consider the causal effects of our own actions, just like Grace and Polina do, we can more easily recognise the importance of forgiveness and grace in relationships.
At the end of the day, it is no secret that life is messy, yet it seems little known that life is at all times embroidered into the tapestry of law. As we watch the girls grow into maturity among their diverse families, each with their own baggage, issues and heartache, we experience firsthand the consequences of causation, damage and loss, and we understand that personal interactions and choices, whether right or wrong, can colour our everyday perspective on life.
Cassandra Sharp is Associate Professor of Law, University of Wollongong, and a member of the Hedgehogs and Foxes Board of Editors.
[N.B.: Professor Sharp received a free copy of Kate Smith, The Negligents, from the publisher, Valley Press, in exchange for her honest review.–Ed.]