I have just spent the entirety of one night and part of another reading a remarkable novel called DEFENDING JACOB. It’s been a while since William Landay has graced the bookshelves with his presence, and his latest is quite different from his last effort, THE STRANGLER. While both books deal with family dynamics and loyalty, DEFENDING JACOB hits uncomfortably but unerringly close to home, as compelling a work as you are likely to pick up this year.
"DEFENDING JACOB presents an unsettling picture on an exquisite but disturbing canvas, one that will haunt the reader long after the final sentences of the book are read."
The basic premise of the book is deceptively simple. A 14-year-old boy named Jacob Barber, is accused of the murder of Ben Rifkin, one of his middle-school classmates. Jacob’s father, Andy, has been an Assistant District Attorney for 22 years in the quiet Boston suburb that the family calls home. Andy does not consider his job a stepping stone to higher office; he is content to simply do the best job he can. So when Ben’s body is first discovered, Andy takes charge of the initial investigation, working with the police in directing the gathering of evidence. But the investigation seems to proceed slowly, almost from the beginning, and when what evidence there is appears to point to Jacob as the killer, Andy is removed from the case and placed in the position of defending his son from the charges that, from his viewpoint, are most certainly false. In his mind, there can be no other conclusion.
Jacob’s guilt or innocence is unknown throughout most of DEFENDING JACOB. But what is a certainty is that all is not right. Andy is a smart and experienced prosecutor who knows all too well how evidence can be wrongfully construed. Accordingly, he goes through Jacob’s things, hiding this and destroying that and concealing the other. He does it with the chilling certitude that he is not protecting a murderer, but merely keeping his innocent son from a wrongful conviction. Innocent or guilty, there is something about Jacob that’s wrong, and dreadfully so. What Andy construes as the quiet moodiness of adolescence in Jacob emerges as something that is much more unsettling and sinister. This is revealed through stories told by Jacob’s friends, a number of whom take his involvement in Ben’s murder as a cold, hard truth. At the same time, Andy harbors a secret about his past and ancestry that he has concealed from everyone and fears will be revealed, even as he agonizes over the possibility that his secret may well be the cause of Jacob’s problems.
Andy’s conflicts notwithstanding, it is Laurie Barber, Andy’s wife and Jacob’s mother, who slowly realizes the truth about her son during the investigation, arrest and trial. The difference between Andy and Laurie is that Andy cannot conceive of a world where his son committed murder; Laurie can, and it is the fact that she can believe such a thing could occur --- whether it did or not --- that causes her physical and mental deterioration. As the trial, verdict and aftermath unfold, the book ends not so much in a climax as it does in a series of explosive incidents and revelations, each greater than the next, until a rough justice of sorts is achieved. Or is it?
DEFENDING JACOB is one of those rare books that offers a riveting story in addition to raising profound questions and issues for which we do not have the knowledge or capability to answer yet. Is the human capacity for violence an inherited trait, or is it something we learn? How far can, and should, a parent go to protect a child? Is this judicial system an effective way to deal with criminals, or should alternative methods be considered? DEFENDING JACOB presents an unsettling picture on an exquisite but disturbing canvas, one that will haunt the reader long after the final sentences of the book are read.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on February 2, 2012