I can’t remember when I first read ‘Looking for JJ’, Anne Cassidy’s extraordinary novel about a child murderer. I only remember that it blew me away. It was bold, emotive and brilliantly-written, and so I jumped at the chance of reviewing her long-awaited sequel, ‘Finding Jennifer Jones’. I read the first book again, so that I could refresh my memory. ‘Looking for JJ’ is the story of Jennifer Jones. When we meet her, she is seventeen and living under the name Alice Tully. She’s been released from prison having served a six-year sentence for killing her best friend. There’s no question that she did it. What the book explores so cleverly is the complex issue of rehabilitation and living under an assumed identity. Alice Tully has a job and a boyfriend and although she hasn’t forgotten the events of the past, she is actually making a go of her future. But a journalist has sussed out who she is, and her cover is blown. By the end of ‘Looking for JJ’, Jennifer/Alice has had to move again – away from the handful of people she had become truly fond of – and start a new life as Kate Rickman.
What does it do to a person, living such an unstable life and risking discovery every day? ‘Finding Jennifer Jones’ catches up with Kate two years later, now nineteen and a university student. She’s an intensely private person, socialising and having brief romantic liaisons but not committing to anyone or anything because we know how damaged and frightened a person she is inside. She meets a boy, Jimmy, who’s clearly not over his ex-girlfriend, but they like each other and she feels this could be a positive relationship.
But then a child is murdered in the area, and because Kate’s records are known to the police, she is hauled in for questioning. It is a deeply unpleasant scene for Kate, who is offended that the police could automatically assume she is a suspect. They, in turn, are outraged that she could even feel offended. How dare she complain? When she knows what she did, all those years ago? Surely she has no right to be treated as an innocent person ever again?
The reader is forced to confront their own moral viewpoint frequently. I found myself wondering if Jennifer/Kate was going to become an unreliable narrator: whether she would, in fact, turn out to be responsible for this new murder. Of course I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that I felt happy with the direction the story took.
The emotional reasons behind Jennifer’s act of violence as a ten-year-old are dealt with more thoroughly in the first book, and I think the emotional abuse by her mother (more by neglect than anything else) is skilfully handled. The second book contains less of her mother, which shows how much Kate is moving on – and yet, and yet… The big question remains: if you have taken a life, no matter your age at the time, can you ever be considered an equal among others again? Do you deserve that second chance? Jennifer Jones is a murderer and will always be one. But the circumstances that led her to kill are no longer in place, and so one hopes that, given time, she can forgive the child inside herself and move on. That is assuming, of course, that others around her allow her to move on, which is another angle the book deals with expertly. How would I feel if I found out my next-door-neighbour was a convicted child killer? Or that she was the friend of my daughter? ‘Finding Jennifer Jones’ demands that we see people as more than their labels; that a person is a person first and a killer second, and one cannot judge on the second factor alone.
‘Finding Jennifer Jones’ has just been published by Hot Key Books and I am very, very pleased to report that it is just as superb as ‘Looking for JJ’. If you haven’t read the first, do track it down and read it now. Then read the second, and see if you’re not changed by the end. Like all really brilliant fiction, it forces us to face our own prejudice and preconception and makes us a more compassionate society.