Playing Nice by JP Delaney

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Stories of babies switched at birth have been part of fictional literature since at least the eighteenth century.  The plot device has been used by writers as different from each other as Gilbert and Sullivan [The Gondoliers] and Mark Twain [The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson]; and more recently in various films and television shows.  It is no less effective now as a thrilling plot device as it ever was.

Although it occurs far less often in reality than fiction would suggest, there are documented cases where switching has taken place at or soon after birth whether by accident or intent.

JP Delaney’s new book Playing Nice brings the device right into the twenty-first century as he tells the story of two babies born prematurely on the same day in a private hospital in London.  Because both are very premature, they are transferred – again on the same day – to a public hospital where the facilities are more suitable.  Both survive and eventually go home with their parents.

However – and it is a very dramatic ‘however’ – two years later, it is discovered that the babies had been switched – most probably soon after their admission into the public hospital.  Theo and David as they are now named are very different from each other; and, sadly, David suffered brain damage at birth caused by a lack of oxygen.

The author said in his Acknowledgements [423] that he wanted to write ‘about two ordinary people who try to resolve a near-impossible situation through dialogue and compromise’.  In this sense, the title of the book is quite apposite: ‘playing nice’ is generally something said to children but here it applies more to the parents.  As to what happens when the parents are no longer playing nice – well, that is what the novel is about.

Playing Nice is a tense and dramatic story which engages the reader from the very beginning.  At its heart, it is a psychological exploration of the differing and changing responses of the four parents – Pete and Maddie who have Theo in their care and Miles and Lucy who have David.  The story focuses primarily on the responses of Pete and Maddie with alternating chapters recording their individual actions and thoughts.  Interspersed between those chapters are various extracts from documents used in family court proceedings so the reader knows almost from the beginning that this is not going to progress well.  The first extract [headed Case no. 12675/PU78B65 …] appears on page 17 just after Pete and Maddie are first informed of the switch.

The novel explores the intricacies of legal process and what appears at times to be the sheer bloody-mindedness of the agencies responsible for administering the Children Act which determines custody and guardianship issues.  It also offers almost a clinical case study of psychopathy in adults and what is euphemistically called Callous and Unresponsive [or CU] when a similar diagnosis is made of children.  It would be a significant spoiler to disclose to whom those diagnoses apply.  Suffice to say that they are of critical importance and have serious implications for what transpires as the drama unfolds.

Some readers may feel confident that from an early stage in the novel they can predict how the story will end.  They will ultimately be disappointed in themselves.  There are twists and turns in this book that defy premature prediction.  In particular, while many readers will consider the ending to be just and appropriate, very few would expect it.  However, the conclusion is entirely consistent with what has preceded it and – this is a real strength of the novel – it is entirely believable.

JP Delaney has crafted a complex and challenging story of babies switched at birth and the drastic consequences of what may or may not have been a deliberate act.  Each of the four parents are believable in how they behave and in what they say to each other and to the other players in this drama.  It is a novel well worth the reading and I would recommend it to any reader who enjoys psychological thrillers which are well-written and well-crafted.

JP Delaney – a pseudonym for an author who has written best-sellers under other names – has now written four psychological thrillers.  The first The Girl Before became a global best-seller.

Playing Nice

[2020]

by JP Delaney

Hachette

ISBN 978 1 52940 085 4

$32.99; 422pp

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