House of Anansi, 2016
Reviewed by Shauna Andrews
“[Rape Culture’s] most devilish trick is to make the average, non-criminal person identify with the person accused, instead of the person reporting the crime . . .” Kate Harding, Asking for It.
Among the two anecdotes that Canadian author Zoe Whittall uses two set the tone for her book, this quote is one of them. The Best Kind of People, Whittall’s newest novel of fiction, combines sophisticated sensitivity and empathy in addressing a topic that is typically off-limits – sexual assault, rape, and the gray area of accusation and belief that lies in between.
The Best Kind of People begins with a prologue that has Sadie Woodbury, one of the book’s main protagonists, under threat of attack from a school shooter. She is ten years old, and her father, teacher at the school George Woodbury, comes to her rescue. This prologue succeeds in its task to lay foundation for the protective relationship between George and his daughter.
Whittall follows this prologue with Sadie, now a teenager, and her boyfriend Jimmy, swimming in the lake by her home. Meanwhile, George and Joan Woodbury, Sadie’s parents, are inside the house, exercising a comfort that comes from years of happy married life. The calm with which these characters respectively move around the narrative helps set the stage for what means to be a relaxed, safe, and sturdy atmosphere, in a town that has nothing to hide.
However, within the first few pages, all of this changes, as the environment that Whittall builds so quickly collapses under the stress of a surprising twist – George’s arrest for sexual assault of numerous female minors at the private school where he teaches, and where Sadie is a student.
Joan, once the steadfast wife, begins to question what she knows about her husband as small ques come to her attention. Meanwhile, Sadie, a classmate of all the female accusers, faces ridicule, and worse, doubt towards her father’s innocence. Sadie’s brother Andrew and her aunt Clara become Joan’s moral support, while Sadie becomes more and more inexistent at home and school, staying at Jimmy’s house where substances are available to help her forget about the trouble at hand.
As George’s case continues to be investigated, leaving him in jail for months, his family members become introspective at what this means for their family moving forward, guilty or not. We follow these characters on their road to understanding while they deal with suspicions that someone so close to them could be someone they don’t know at all.
The story ends up being less about the overall the central theme, but more so about the emotional weight of a scandal like this one, and the way family, friends, coworkers, and a community in general might deal with distasteful drama as they divide and take sides.
While there are a number of principal characters that help the story along, Whittall goes with depth instead of breadth. She uses four separate perspectives to donate separate points of view, giving the story a well-rounded opinion and outlook on how the general public might see this type of misdemeanor in a small town, especially considering George Woodbury, the accused, is such a well-respected man.
Whittall moves through the novel using time as a divider; first, the initial week of the scandal. Then the next few months, and then the trial. In doing this, Whittall reminds readers that there are many steps in between guilty or innocent, and that for some, new scandals may replace the drama of the previous one, but not for the families close to a crime. Suffering continues long after the catalyst moment, and nothing will ever be the same, as the Woodbury family begins to realize.The Best Kind of People is an emotionally charged book that has readers trying to see a sex scandal from all sides, questioning the truth, and realizing that it’s never as easy as simply right and wrong. Deserving of its many literary awards, Zoe Whittall’s fourth and most successful novel is one that readers won’t be able to put down.