The prologue to THE GUILT OF OTHERS is exquisitely poignant: a mother refusing to let go her new born baby whose congenital birth defects were discovered in the womb when the foetus was five months. The baby’s birth and death brings to the surface molten cracks in the Ryrie family that have simmered unacknowledged for years.
The story moves back and forth between John and Ricky Ryrie, their children Paul and Biscuit, John’s pregnant eldest daughter from a previous relationship, Jess, and a stranger, Gordie. Binding them all together, as most of humanity is bound together, are the threads of birth and death.
Cohen’s compassionate prose slides easily between the year since the baby was born and died, and the first time Jess met her biological father. In all the Ryrie's memories, that long ago holiday was a golden time, a time of perfect happiness in which the possibility of death, while a real threat (a single mother drowns in the lake, leaving behind two orphaned children) cannot touch them.
But death – in the form of baby Simon – does touch the family and, in doing so, cracks their fears and flaws, their wounds and worries, wide open. The underlying question in the story is whether that perfect holiday was an illusion. Or was the love underpinning it real enough to salvage the family from their current crisis of grief and pain?
The last chapter, however, was a bit strange: there were a few questions raised (did John sleep with Madeleine? Were Gordie’s father’s dioramas put on show?) that were dealt with tangentially, as the story shifted from the personal details of a family we, as readers, have come to know intimately, to a more universal viewpoint. I suggest that this was an attempt to link the personal with the collective; to show that all the joys and sorrows of life are shared not only by individual families, but by all people, loved ones and strangers alike. For me, though, while the philosophy behind the chapter was interesting and well-written, the abrupt change of style was confusing, pulling me out of my involvement with the Ryries, rather than leaving me with a sense of restoration and completion.
Overall, though, THE GUILT OF OTHERS is a tender and moving story, beautifully written and held together with the lightest of touches.