You have to summon a little courage to read this novel, its themes are deeply troubling, but real life issues often are and this is the kind of story that we need to hear if we care about the kind of world we live in. That may seem preachy but The Source is the kind of crime writing that gives the genre a good name. More and more we are seeing victim centred stories that are complex and emotionally rich and reflective of life. This novels exploration of sexual abuse, sex trafficking and institutional dysfunction is as insightfully as any literary novel tackling the same theme because the empathy and understanding of character in the story is deep and insightful. The Source reads like a thriller but, as I said, it tackles child sexual exploitation and rape, it does this with maturity and intelligence. You will rage at the way young people are treated as if they are mere commodities, the damage loaded on to them. Sultoon, a former journalist with an insight into these issues, deserves huge credit for the unflinching way she conveys this universal nightmare through a very personal tale of trauma and damage. This is a gripping and edgy read but it is uncomfortable too. The Source has been optioned for TV, I can already imagine watching through crossed fingers, it’s heart wrenching but thank goodness for it. Orenda has a deserved reputation for thought provoking contemporary fiction and justice would dictate that The Source, in that vein, reaches a wide audience and garners a prize or two along the way.

Marie, London 2006. An abandoned industrial site just outside the M25. Marie and Dominic are about to make a trade, they’re buying a quality, unused ride, not a car – a girl. This is an undercover operation, they are making a documentary on sex trafficking, it’s Marie’s first time in the field. The concealed cameras are fitted, they are ready, the price has already been agreed. The two men with the child for sale wear sharp suits, this is just business to them. It all appears to go smoothly, they have the damning footage. The boss, Olivia Guy, seems pleased but she wants more, it’s not enough to catch sex traffickers red handed, she wants victims on camera. Then the news comes in that the police are reopening the Operation Andromeda inquiry into sexual abuse in the military. Why now after all these years? Olivia sends Dominic and Marie to the press conference to find out.

Carly, Warchester, 1996. This is an army town, most things function, well or badly around their presence. For Carly and her family it feels like the army screwed up everything. Her father got killed in some foreign mess when she was small, her alcohol sodden mother is wasting away the days and the responsibility for her baby sister Kayleigh falls on her. There’s no money, they struggle, Jason, her older brother, a corporal in the army, drops by occasionally with bits and pieces. It’s a hand to mouth existence. Rach is Carly’s best friend, she’s older, all of fifteen, these girls are thrown out into the world without the armour of experience or the support of their families. Rach and Carly are invited to a party at one of the barracks, Jason’s ok with that. Private Adrian Thomas takes them; there’s music and drink and it’s time away from the worry of life at home for Carly. Next day Rach encourages Carly to go on the pill so she lies to the doctor, says she’s fourteen. Then one day shortly after that, Jason collects Carly and takes her to see captain Robert Leigh Parish, pushes her into his office and stands behind her as the office speaks. The captain says a bit of money would be nice for the family, a bit of comfort for Carly, all she has to do is make sure their needs are met. She’s free to come and go, of course, we’re all friends here. Carly doesn’t understand what’s going, sadly we can imagine what’s to come.

Carly and Marie’s stories are about to collide, the secrets of the past are devastating, the investigation in the present urgent. This is a tense thriller, a remarkable debut, heart breaking but ultimately this is a story of resilience and survival.

Reviewed by Paul Burke

Published by Orenda Books (15 April 2021)
Paperback, ISBN 978-1913193591