Sarah by J. K. Gunne takes us to Brussels, where Irishman Denny lives with his son, his daughter-in-law and their three children. Denny, for years, had been caught up in the sectarian violence of Northern Ireland that had seen his own brother murdered by the Provisional IRA. After Denny’s wife had died and his house had burnt to the ground, he gladly accepted the kind offer to live with his son and his family. He found comfort and peace in the family, being especially close to his grandchildren who affectionately called him Bompa. With the two eldest children almost grown and out on their own, it was five-year-old Sarah that Denny was drawn to and captivated most by. He loved to go to the outdoor market next to their house with the young girl who would enchant and delight all she came into contact with. When Denny takes his eyes off his granddaughter for just a few minutes, the child suddenly disappears and Denny and his family are caught up in the unspeakable world of child sex-trafficking. Desperate to find her, Denny and Sarah’s elder brother Romain will go to any lengths to try to track her down.
Sarah is definitely one of those books that creeps up on you somewhat before gripping you in its spell and racing through to a conclusion, with you, the reader, hanging on for dear life. In Denny, author J. K. Gunne has created a character that is rich in both depth and empathy. As a reader it was easy to understand the old man’s sometime confusion and sometime certainty about what he had seen and what it meant. I particularly liked that the novel embraced some subject matter that is so often swept under the carpet or discussed covertly, especially the fact that many involved in the child-exploitation industry are not only extremely wealthy, but also often very powerful and “pillars” of whatever community they are a part of. The story’s assertion that even in the upper levels of the justice system, these vile creatures were prevalent and interfering in investigations, certainly resonated with me. I thought the story, especially at the beginning, was a trifle vague and seemed to meander along meaninglessly at times, however, once Sarah disappeared the true nature of the narrative emerged and it was an engaging and thrilling read. As, what I suspect is a debut novel there is room for improvement but equally hints of an excellent storytelling ability as well.