A Judge Decided – Review 3

Thank you Priscilla Beeton for this review

BOOK REVIEW

Helen Fenwick (2021) A Judge Decided. 

Struisbaai: Self-published.

289 pages

A Judge Decided is Helen Fenwick’s first published novel. Although written as a work of fiction, it is based on a true story of a custody battle that culminated in the first court case in South Africa challenging the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. This states that one parent may not remove a child to another country without the other parent’s consent and allows for the expeditious return of that child to their country of habitual residence.

Leigh and Darren, a young married couple, move to Britain where their two sons are born. Darren is unreasonably demanding of his exhausted and depressed young wife who is striving to cope with two babies both under two years old while continuing to do office work for him. He is constantly undermining Leigh’s confidence with psychological abuse, threats of divorce and of taking away one of her babies and sending her back to South Africa. She, understandably, flees home to South Africa to her father and stepmother, taking both babies with her. Citing the Hague Convention, Darren fights through the British courts for the babies’ return to Britain, with or without their mother. This is the story of Leigh’s valiant fight through the South African courts to keep her babies with her in South Africa.

Helen Fenwick has written the novel largely in the present tense, which swiftly builds suspense. She has succeeded in making the reader feel the events are happening right now and the reader is also swiftly caught up in the rapidly changing emotion of the characters. She has skillfully avoided the trap of including the banal and unimportant detail into which some authors writing in the present tense fall.  She has done this in part by using another interesting tool. In italicized passages to set them apart from the narrative, she uses the ghostly but benevolent interpositions of Leigh’s mother, who died when Leigh was twelve years old, to provide background and to warn the reader that something bad or alarming is about to happen. The entire family, including Leigh’s much-loved and supportive stepmother, often feel or sense her comforting spiritual presence. The story, sensitively written, is told through the eyes of Leigh and her family members, through their conversations and e-mail correspondence, to which the reader can easily relate.  The reader sees Leigh’s growing confidence, with the support and empathy of her family, to become a young mother taking charge of her own and her sons’ future.  

Divorce and child custody battles can be ugly.  Although fictionalized, there is much in this book that would be useful reading and advice for young parents in troubled relationships and also for their families – advice about the importance of striving to solving the breakdown of relationships, of seeking professional help and also how important it is to fight for one’s rights. Above all, this book demonstrates the importance of a loving and supportive family. A Judge Decided is a powerful family story, filled with suspense as the reader follows the events unfolding around the custody battles which finally end in the decision of a judge in the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein. It is a roller-coaster of a ride, high elation one moment and alarm, fear and despondency the next as the reader wonders who is finally going to win this war and at what cost.

A compelling read which, once started, is almost unput-downable! Well done, Helen Fenwick, on your debut novel! I truly hope there will be more.

Priscilla Beeton

22 January 2021