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 that she cannot ignore. Anna reports the family to the police and social services, but no one comes to Charlie’s aid.
So when the girl turns up at her door asking for help, the only thing Anna can think to do is to take her and run.
Raising deeply felt questions about our responsibility for the children around us, PROMISE asks: if Charlie were my neighbour, what would I do?
Articles about the writing of Promise:
Yes, if I knew a child was being abused, I would take things into my own hands : Mamamia, June 27, 2016
Motherhood needn't be the 'enemy' of creative pursuits : Daily Life, June 28, 2016
Sarah Armstrong’s magical mullum delivers her promise : Verandah Magazine, June 2016
Armstrong tackles child abuse in new novel: Byron Shire Echo, June 29, 2016
Q&A with Sarah Armstrong: Books Babies Being, July 2016
WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING ABOUT PROMISE
Australian Women’s Weekly
August 2016: Great Read
What extremes would you go to to protect a child in danger is the question posed in this gripping novel, says Juliet Rieden.
There’s something raw and compulsive about Sarah Armstrong’s new novel, Promise - even the bald title feels like a cry for help that turns into a pact. The urgent descriptions pull you in from the outset as protagonist Anna tries to grapple with the horrors going on in front of her eyes. Anna, a not very ambitious graphic designer, lives on her own in a tumbledown rented house; her main pleasure is her garden.
Following the death of her neighbour, new tenants arrive. Gabby and wan five-year-old daughter Charlie are a rag-tag pair. Gabby seems out of it and Charlie hungry and desperately unkempt. When Gabby’s partner, Harlan, turns up, all menace and anger, Anna knows that Charlie is in danger. The girl has suspicious injuries - bruises and a human bite mark on her limbs - and just two days after they arrive, Anna and her boyfriend Dave find themselves calling the authorities when Harlan’s rage explodes and Charlie is trapped in the firing line.
More incidents compound, but neither the police nor the Department of Family and Community Services seem to be able to remove Charlie from the abuse. Anna is her only hope and she is pleading for help. Facing threats from Harlan, 37-year-old Anna bundles Charlie into her car and drives off, her only plan to get the child to safety. It’s a rash move as Anna goes on the run with Charlie, having abducted her, and it is this moral dilemma at the beating heart of the story that is so gripping and so real.
Sarah says she was inspired to write the novel after seeing media reports about a two-year-old boy who died, his mother charged with his murder. ‘Neighbours told how they’d been concerned about him and had reported him to community services several times. I put myself in the shoes of those neighbours; they’d done their best to get him to the attention of the authorities, yet the boy died. I imagined that if I were them, I’d feel frustrated and helpless, and might have wished that I’d just picked him up one day and put him in my car and driven away.
I think the reason the story captured my attention was because since my daughter was born in 2010, I developed a heightened awareness of the vulnerability of children. I’d lie awake and think about the fact that inevitably, certainly, there were small children in my town being abused. And I felt a terrible helplessness to think that. So creating 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 responsibility for other children extends.’
It’s a powerful plot, pitching vigilantism against individual responsibility. It takes us on an edge-of-the-seat ride to see if Anna can save Charlie and also herself. The result is thought-provoking and very readable. July 2016
The Weekend Australian
Sarah Armstrong, in Promise, shines an unforgiving light on abused children and society’s choices.
It is impossible to read Armstrong’s Promise without imagining what you would do if placed in the position of her protagonist Anna. A rough family moves in next door and she is caught up in their lives when it becomes clear five-year-old girl Charlie is in serious danger. Anna reports the situation to the police and Family and Community Services, but the latter is overwhelmed by kids in more dire need, and when the police arrive it makes matters worse. Returning Charlie, cowering in Anna’s backyard, to her stepfather would mean certain abuse, so Anna puts the child in her car and drives away.
Tellingly, when her lawyer boyfriend urges her to turn back because what she is doing is abduction, and she asks if he can guarantee that they will be able to get Charlie into care, Dave, a guy we’ve come to trust, pauses. “No, of course I can’t,” he says on the phone. “But I guarantee you’ll end up charged with a serious crime unless you stop right now.” These, then, are Anna’s choices, and she understands the consequences.
Promise gets off to a slow start, but the tension mounts as the narrative recounts every move they make. The cumulative effect builds up the impression that far from being a crazy decision, the choice Anna makes is the only credible one open to a humane member of society. To Armstrong’s enormous credit, we come to care a great deal about what happens to Charlie and Anna. The drama at no point becomes melodramatic, which is quite a feat given a plot that involves kidnapping, the police, hiding out and lawyers.
From sensible, conventional graphic designer to an outlaw on the lam, Anna’s life undergoes a complete transformation in just a few hours. She turns to the only person she can think of who might be simpatico: her boyfriend of 17 years ago, Pat.
At first, Pat doesn’t seem like the easygoing guy she remembers, and for a moment we question whether we can trust Anna’s perspective, but his life has changed. Things are complicated now for Pat.
Things are complicated for Anna, too. She has taken Charlie to keep her safe, but the little girl wants to be with her mum, despite the abuse. Some of the people who could help Anna are instead judgmental: Should she have taken Charlie from her mother? And shouldn’t she have taken Charlie’s mother, too, given that she is living with a violent man?
The pivotal question for Anna, who lost her own mother when she was eight, concerns whether she did the right thing or whether Charlie should be with her mother regardless. In loco parentis for the first time, Anna asks herself what her own mother would have done.
The characters bloom into life with the exception of Charlie, who is understandably joyless. It is hard to get much of a sense of how she affects a room, and what she is like to be around. Even when present, she often seems absent.
The book reflects current affairs and is indicative of how people are affected by the trauma of those close by. In an interesting parallel with The Road to Winter, in Promise it is backpacker Sabine who feels unwelcome in Australia. Now that her visa has run out she is an illegal immigrant genuinely worried that the authorities might place her in detention.
Anna is probably not in a position to have kids herself now, though she might have had one once. She contemplates this while also dealing with the disappointment of her ex-cop dad who, understandably, worries. Nothing is without complication, and the messy layers of it, rather than being over the top, add to the story’s authenticity, as does the conclusion.
Anna could have ignored the bangs and cries in the night, and the girl in her yard, wet and scared. Accepting collective responsibility is one thing, but to independently take on someone else’s child in order to prevent them from further harm is a big ask.
As the news tells us repeatedly, calling the authorities is not enough to ensure the safety of a child. It should be, but it isn’t. With fierce integrity, Armstrong has written a contemporary story that absolutely needs telling
Rating: 5 Stars
What an amazing story. Anna has new neighbours arrive and they are abusing their young daughter, Charlie. What is Anna to do when her calls to the police and children’s services result in no changes in this poor child’s life?
What she decides to do—to abduct Charlie—sets the premise for the rest of the novel and the book deals with the consequences of this enormous decision.
The author has woven an intense story; the reader can feel the power of the emotions involved. The characters are powerful and tension runs high all the way through – I had trouble putting the book down.
Anna’s maternal instincts rise to the surface. Her relationship with her own mother who died when she was eight-years-old, begin to unfold and play on her mind.
It was not hard for me to decide whether she had done the right thing or not. I was on Anna’s side all the way.
I highly recommend this book. With thanks to Pan Macmillan for the book in exchange for an honest review. June 12 2016
Books, Babies, Being
Rating: 4 Stars
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. July 5 2016