Sarah Sultoon – The Source
Published by Orenda Books, paperback £8.99. I received a copy of the novel from the publisher as I chaired a panel including the author at Aye Write! 2021, Glasgow’s book festival. Thanks to Bob McDevitt and the Aye Write! team for inviting me, and thanks to Karen Sullivan for sending the book to me.
First, the official blurb: One last chance to reveal the truth… 1996. Essex. Thirteen-year-old schoolgirl Carly lives in a disenfranchised town dominated by a military base, struggling to care for her baby sister while her mum sleeps off another binge. When her squaddie brother brings food and treats, and offers an exclusive invitation to army parties, things start to look a little less bleak. 2006. London. Junior TV newsroom journalist Marie has spent six months exposing a gang of sex traffickers, but everything is derailed when New Scotland Yard announces the re-opening of Operation Andromeda, the notorious investigation into allegations of sex abuse at an army base a decade earlier. As the lives of these two characters intertwine around a single, defining event, a series of utterly chilling experiences is revealed, sparking a nail-biting race to find the truth … and justice.
There is no shortage of journalists on the crime fiction shelves – from Val McDermid to Mick Herron, the path is well trodden, and with good reason, as a day job working with words and getting to the essential parts of factual stories is good training for a second job working with words and getting to the essential parts of a fictional story. Sarah Sultoon, a former CNN news executive, has already had her hard-hitting debut novel optioned for TV, and it’s not hard to see why: as a former broadcaster, she thinks and writes visually, and the subject matter – a sex-trafficking investigation that morphs into something much bigger and nastier – is gripping.
The chapters flip between Marie, a junior producer finding her feet in news programme-making, in 2006, and 13-year-old Carly, growing up in Warchester in 1996. We start with Marie and colleague Dominic working on a trafficking story, meeting some deeply unsavoury people, fear and disgust mingling as they covertly record the conversation. Flip to Carly, who has a chaotic home life with her alcoholic mum and neglected baby sister, rescued only by her friendship with Rach and random visits from brother Jason, a soldier stationed in the town’s barracks. Rach and Carly are invited to the barracks for a party, which sparks a sense of dread in the reader as they see how each step builds until the girls are far from safety.
Just as the Nine News team are about to seek a quote from the Metropolitan Police and air the trafficking story, the force announces that it is reopening Operation Andromeda, its investigation into allegations of sexual abuse at an army base a decade earlier. Dominic is then leaked a photograph of a girl from the Andromeda investigation, which sends Marie on a desperate chase for answers.
Carly’s life takes a turn for the worse when baby sister Kayleigh falls ill, and there are repercussions. Not long after, Carly finds herself in a desperate situation in an effort to protect Kayleigh, in a scene that is incredibly difficult to read as while we know everything she is saying is true, and her actions are understandable reactions to her experiences, the other person in the scene sees only what is on the surface.
Marie’s and Carly’s threads eventually collide in spectacular fashion, with scenes that are difficult to read – but the superb writing drives you to keep turning the pages; we have to know for sure what happened and why, who was ultimately pulling the strings, and why it is coming to light now. We come to see that both Carly and Marie fell through the cracks, and became vulnerable to being groomed in different ways. Sultoon is unflinching even in the trickiest situations, and the power this gives the narrative cannot be understated.
Even as I felt horror at Carly’s life and the path she was being set on, I admired how Sultoon reveals her story, and especially her home life, with sensitivity and with care to leaven the gloom with lighter moments of normal teenage life. And while Marie’s chapters give us plenty of food for thought, about her and about the stories that have defined her career, I find myself grinning at the newsroom scenes – the chaos, clashing egos and gallows humour all reminded me of the newspaper offices I’ve worked in over the years. It’s also refreshing to see journalists being something other than lazy, amoral stereotypes. When journalism is at its best and most doggedly determined, sometimes people face consequences for their actions. As Dominic tells Marie: “Sometimes it really does work: you tell the terrible stories, and someone has to do something about them.”
The ending of The Source was not what I was expecting, which left me disoriented. But it’s full of energy and power, which is what is needed after the build-up over the last 50 or so pages. And in the final pages we do get the other thing we need: a glimmer of hope. Do the real victims of such cases get that? Perhaps not. But one of the privileges of crime fiction is that an author can bend the narrative to their will, and give us a little light after taking us on a journey into darkness.
Sultoon’s last words on the subject, in the acknowledgements, are sobering. We should not forget this story, and the reality behind it, when we close the pages. There may be little we can do in a practical sense, but bearing witness is a crucial part of journalism, and no less important when we come across fiction such as this.
Sarah Sultoon is a journalist and writer, whose work as an international news executive at CNN has taken her all over the world, from seats of power in Washington and London to the front line in Iraq and Afghanistan. She has won several awards for her work. The Source is her first novel and is currently in development for TV with Lime Pictures.
You can follow the author on Twitter here: @SultoonSarah