A couple is torn apart by a child’s cancer in Allnutt’s debut.
From the first chapters, readers know that something has gone seriously awry in the marriage of young upper-middle-class Brits Rob and Anna. Addled by vodka, Rob wakes up to discover that Anna and their young son, Jack, are gone. There follows an extended flashback detailing how this came about. The couple met while attending Cambridge, she in economics and he in computer science. Degreed, they soon settle down to a comfortable London life: She’s an accountant; he has a lucrative contract with a startup. After two miscarriages, Anna and Rob are overjoyed at the birth of a son. As Jack grows, he bonds with stay-at-home dad Rob, whose career dilemmas, interposed at this point, do little to either advance the story or illuminate his character. Similarly, beyond the stereotypical attributes of her trade, we never learn much about Anna. At age 5, Jack is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Two specialists are consulted and surgery performed, affording provisional hope: A celebratory vacation in Crete ensues. But Jack has a relapse, and this time only palliative measures are possible. Rob consults Hope’s Place, a social media forum, obsessively following “Nev,” one poster whose son Josh had a similar malignancy. Josh is now in complete remission thanks to the ministrations of a Dr. Sladkovsky in Prague. Sladkovsky’s clinic, though pricey, has purportedly worked miracles with “immuno-engineering.” Suspecting snake oil and concerned about finances, Anna balks at this expedient. (The costs, if any, of Jack’s U.K. treatment are never addressed, which U.S. readers might find disappointing.) When a family emergency calls Anna away, Rob, desperate that time is running out, spirits Jack to Prague. Sladkovsky’s experimental protocols seem to be working—then an irate Anna arrives. In its depiction of ordinary people in dire circumstances, the book opts for uplifting messages over controversy. Sympathy for Allnutt’s characters is de rigueur; unfortunately, they lack the depth to command it.
Undeniably well-meaning but too circumspect in its approach.