BOOK REVIEW / When the quality of mercy is all too strained

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The Independent Culture
SARA THORNTON's mother was a privileged and deeply unhappy woman who beat her daughter until she got too big. By the age of six, Sara wished her mother dead. By 16, the physical blows having been exchanged for verbal ones, she wished herself dead. By 26 she had failed several exams, lost several jobs, had several disastrous sexual relationships, suffered one abortion and made two suicide attempts. By 36 she was in jail for murdering her alcoholic and persistently violent husband.

The tale is a complicated one, and in Sara Thornton: The Story of a Woman Who Killed (Gollancz pounds 6.99) Jennifer Nadel has made a worthy attempt to make sense of it. At the same time, she tries to expose how our present legal system has failed, and continues to fail, not only women who kill but women as a gender.

We learn a lot about the facts of this particular case, but we also find out all sorts of things we've probably always wanted to know, like the implications of pleading provocation as opposed to diminished responsibility, and the finer details that can turn manslaughter into murder and vice versa. Most important of all, we learn about some of the inherent hypocrisy of the legal system, about its loopholes, its neolithic attitude towards women, and its persistent, and often subtle, failure to deal with them on an equal basis with men.

Sara Thornton's case is a sad catalogue of failures. Her parents failed to love her; her husband failed to control his drinking; the police, and police policy on 'domestics', failed to protect her; the courts ultimately failed to understand how paralysing domestic violence can be. This is the single most interesting thing about the book. Many female victims of domestic violence feel unable to leave painful or dangerous relationships, and yet as long as they remain within a physically violent situation, society witholds its sympathy. Instead of being an innocent victim, the woman comes to be regarded as some kind of accomplice to her fate: she asked for it, deserved it, had it coming to her, because she could have walked away.

Well, could she? We have all witnessed relationships in which one or both partners put up with years, or lifetimes, of emotional, verbal or sexual abuse and manipulation. And we know why they stay. The children, the house, the job, the financial situation make it well nigh impossible to leave. So does love. And hope. And fear.

But while it's socially acceptable to overlook (or tolerate) the deep emotional wounds people inflict upon one another, to turn a blind eye to a black eye is not. Jennifer Nadel makes this point well and often. But that still does not give her the licence to write a narrative according almost entirely to Sara Thornton, while claiming an objective overview. Truth is not a shining light, it is a prism, and Nadel would have strengthened her literary case, if not her legal one, if she had admitted (or realised) this.