Some time in the early nineteen seventies a brother and sister with Irish roots busked for pennies around Kings Cross in London. He went on to become a singer/songwriter who penned the most successful Christmas hit of all time. She became a journalist and has just released her first novel. Set in the early years of the twentieth century, and in the London streets where the siblings grew up in the 1960s, Siobhan MacGowan’s masterpiece is no fairy tale. Where her brother’s most well known work is a hymn of praise for down and out Irish émigrés in New York, The Trial of Lotta Rae combines an homage to the suffragette movement with a passionate anti-war message and a lament for the absence of justice for those who lack power. Above all, it is a compelling exploration of the corrosive effect of guilt, not only on the guilty but on those they love.
The crime perpetrated against Lotta, a humble clerk in a brewery office, on the night of Halloween 1906, has repercussions, for her and her legal representative, that echo through the next twelve years until her death. Revealing that she is dead by the end of the book is not a spoiler because it soon becomes apparent that her presence beside William Linden on an important journey, during which her story is told, is as a ghost haunting and tormenting him. A clever device which enables the author to reveal both his and her versions of the story side by side, as the two voices alternate.
It is a monumental work, not always easy to read, often harrowing in its descriptions of the brutal treatment meted out to hunger striking women and the horrors of trench warfare. But there are lighter moments, too, not least in the delightful episodes featuring Lotta’s child.
It is impossible not to draw parallels with Dickens. Had he lived long enough to experience the fight for voting rights and the futility of the Great War, this is surely how he would have set about documenting them. The two central characters represent the best and worst of human nature. She obsessed with the need, not only for justice but for retribution. He racked with guilt, desperately clinging on to flawed and out dated values, accompanied by an abiding contempt for women and the “weak” men who support them. Woven in and out of their story is a cast of men and women who exhibit varying degrees of kindness and empathy.