Promise – Sarah Armstrong
When a new family moves in next door, it takes Anna just two days to realise something is very wrong. She can hear their five-year-old daughter Charlie crying, then sees injuries on the little girl which cannot be ignored. Anna reports the family to the police and social services but when no one comes to Charlie’s aid, Anna understands that she is alone with her fears for the child’s life.
So when Charlie comes to her door asking for help, the only thing Anna can think to do is take the girl and run.
Raising delicate but deeply felt questions about our individual responsibility for the children around us, Promise is a novel that obliges the reader to ask: if Charlie were my neighbour, what would I do?
Promise is a new novel by journalist Sarah Armstrong. I must admit I was excited to read this book, but also apprehensive. Almost every day we hear terrible stories of children being treated badly, neglected, abused and even murdered. Every story upsets me, brings tears to my eyes for a short time, brings up anger, sadness and frustration. But then the news story changes. These children are soon forgotten, replaced with other stories.
I knew some of the emotions this book was going to bring up in me. I am a mother and a nurse. My first instinct is to care. I was apprehensive to get out of my comfort zone and voluntarily read about this subject matter, knowing that it will upset me.
But we NEED to be upset if anything is ever going to be done about this problem. Sarah has written an insightful, and at times disturbing portrayal of a child in danger and one woman’s frustration with the system as she takes matters into her own hands. While obviously kidnapping a child in danger is probably not the best idea to help the problem, Armstrong has brought us a good reminder that these things happen EVERY DAY! Perhaps even next door to YOU!
SOMETHING NEEDS TO BE DONE!
Q&A with Sarah Armstrong
Hi Sarah, thanks for joining me at Books Babies Being!
Were you reporting on family violence stories in your career as a journalist? Was this what inspired you to write Promise?
I didn’t report on family voilence when I was a journalist. That may partly be because it was less often in the news then. Societey wide – not just in the media – I think that family violence often – somehow – wasn’t regarded as real violence, or a real crime.
I was inspired to write Promise many years after leaving journalism and the ABC, after i’d moved to the north coast of NSW. It was one specific story that inspired me – one story in a long line of stories about children killed in their homes by a parent or step parent. A two-year-old boy died, and his mother was charged with his murder. In one of the television stories, neighbours said they’d been concerned about him and had reported him to community services. I put myself in the shoes of those neighbours; they’d done their best to get him to the attention of authorities, they’d called several times, and yet, the boy died. I wondered – if I were them – if I might have wished that I’d just picked him up one day and put him in my car and driven away. That thought became the premise of the novel.
I think one reason the story captured my attention is that since my daughter was born in 2010, I’ve been so much more aware of the vulnerability of children. Coming up with a character who takes decisive action was perhaps a way for me to have a conversation with myself (and then, once published, with others) about how far our individual responsibility for other children extends, and about whether there are ever occasions when it is right to break the law.
And I must say that even though this is a story with a difficult premise, it’s really a love story between a woman and a child. And an exploration of many aspects of motherhood: mothering a child not your own, being motherless, childlessness, and what makes a good mother.
The extremely heart-wrenching story of Rosie Batty in 2014 brought significant public attention in Australia to family violence. Did Rosie’s work change the way that the media reports on domestic violence? Did this event influence your book?
Luke Batty’s murder and Rosie Batty’s response to his death and her subsequent campaigning seem – as far as i can tell – to have created a shift in the public conversation about family violence and in the media coverage of family violence. Rosie Batty spoke so calmly, with such clarity and dignity (but not without anger and outrage), that she seemed to tap into something in the community. I have the sense that change has been brewing for a while but she seemed to nudge the conversation forward. Luke’s sad death did not influence my writing of Promise, as I’d already started work on it. It’s more that as I was writing it, the public conversation about family violence happened to be gaining momentum.
How did writing Promise impact you as a mother?
I suspect that Promise affected me as a mother less than being a mother had an impact on how I wrote Promise. My partner Alan and I had our daughter Amelia in 2010, after trying for quite a while, and resorting to IVF. Having a newborn baby to look after, and realising all babies’ complete reliance on the adults around them, really brought home to me how vulnerable babies are. And I also felt incredibly vulnerable in the face of my love for my baby girl. It just made me think deeply about the profound responsibility of being a parent, about what makes a good parent, and what we can do as a society to support both parents who are struggling, and children who are at risk.
What would you recommend people do if they are in a situation like Anna’s?
First I should say that I am no expert on child protection. But I do know that community services in each state have helplines you can call (anonymously if you wish) to report a child at risk. And I think it’s really important to call if you know a child is being abused; the child may have no other advocate. You might be it. Community services are so understaffed that just one report of a child being at risk is most unlikely to prompt a caseworker to visit a family, anyway. It usually takes several, if not many, notifications.
If the sitiation is immediately dangerous, then call the police. I remember watching a panel discussion on family violence on the ABC and a senior NSW police officer said that if we hear any family violence, then we should call the police. Just call the police. Violence is violence.
But in situations that are less acute – and unlikely to warrant intervention by community services – I think that offering support to the parents and support to the child(ren) is appropriate. Being a parent is hard, and harder still if you add exhaustion, financial pressures, ill health and stress to the picture. There are many instances where support for the parent and child may be what’s most helpful.
If I see a parent smacking and screaming at a child in a supermarket, I would hope that I’d offer the parent support and say something like, ‘Can I help? You look like you’re having a hard time’. Support for that struggling parent is support for the child.
I’m not actually advocating people abduct an abused child, like my character, Anna, does (although I understand why she did it, and have been grappling with the question of whether it’s sometimes appropriate to break the law).
What can we do to help, even if we are not exposed to family violence?
I’d like to see members of the community put pressure on State Governments to increase funding to combat and deal with family violence, including violence against children.
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions Sarah.
My pleasure, Mel.
If you need assistance with family violence, NEVER ALONE has a comprehensive list of resources.
MY REVIEW OF PROMISE
I must admit I was expecting Promise to be a heavy read from the start. I was bracing myself for the emotion, and there indeed were a few disturbing gut-wrenching moments. However instead of being heavy and depressing like I was somewhat expecting, I found the book to be extremely readable. The emotive scenes were powerful, but also done with a respectful tactfulness that I found quite refreshing.
I found the characters to be quite well developed and well written. Anna had quite a lot of baggage that she didn’t realise was there, and it was satisfying to watch her move through some of her issues as everything was unfolding. I did have a bit of a problem relating to Anna though, as I found some of her decisions were just so far from my reality. I think I felt this way because thankfully I have never been in that sort of situation myself. I have no idea how I would react if I was witnessing what she did and the system wasn’t doing anything. Perhaps its not so far from reality after all.
There were a few parts of the book that moved a bit slower than others, but I enjoyed the overall pace. I liked the atmosphere of the novel and the city to rural backdrop. There was lots of tension with the threat of being discovered vs the pressure to turn herself in.
I enjoyed the ending, I don’t know why, but I was expecting something different.
Would I recommend Promise?
Absolutely! It was a great read that will no doubt bring some much needed attention to the problem of family violence in Australia.
Many thanks to author Sarah Armstrong via Pan Macmillan for a copy of Promise in exchange for my honest review, and for joining me for the Q&A!
(4 / 5)
Promise is published by Macmillan Australia and is now available at all good bookstores and online
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I grew up in a family with no television, which meant I was a voracious (if fairly indiscriminate) reader, and I was determined, from an early age, to be a writer. This led me to study journalism, and I joined ABC Radio Current Affairs where, in 1993, I won a Walkley Award for a story on diggers returning to Gallipoli. Later I became a researcher and field producer on ABC TV’s ‘Foreign Correspondent’ program.
What most satisfied me as a journalist was meeting people and telling stories which explored the emotional and moral complexities of life, but what I really wanted to do was to use fiction to explore this messy and beautiful business of being human. In 1997 I resigned from the ABC and moved to the hills outside Byron Bay to devote myself to writing fiction.
The week I moved into a rustic cabin in the forested valley, it started raining and rained for three months. That rain found its way into my writing. My first novel Salt Rain was published (Allen & Unwin) in 2004. It was shortlisted for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award, the Queensland Premier’s Literary Prize and the Dobbie Literary Award. Salt Rain was published in the United States by MacAdam/Cage.
My second novel His Other House was published in March 2015 by Pan Macmillan and will be published in Germany in August 2015.
Promise was released on the 28th June, 2016 and is available now.
I live in sub-tropical northern New South Wales with the writer, Alan Close, and our young daughter.