Spey and his Mum have always been a self-sufficient unit with no father figure on the horizon. Lawrence creates their close relationship beautifully, walking the fine line between love and sentimentality in fine style. There’s arch humour, openness and an awareness of Black issues which is rooted in Spey but which succeeds in avoiding dogma. Therefore, it comes as a huge shock when Spey comes downstairs on Christmas morning to find a strange man asleep on the sofa. The shock level ramps up even further when Spey’s mother tells him that the man is Benni, his father, out of jail after serving several sentences during the years that Spey has been growing up.
Spey is understandably shocked at this secret his mother has been keeping and, initially wants nothing to do with Benni, until he receives a mysterious letter from Dee, a childhood friend, who has sent him half of the collage they made together when they were children. When he begins to look for her and runs into her with a notorious local drug dealer he begins to worry that she has been drawn into the world of county lines and reluctantly enlists his father’s support to try to find out where she is living and get her away from the world of drugs, which her mother succumbed to and consequently became an addict.
The narrative follows their search through the milestones of Social Care, to whom Dee was consigned after the death of her beloved grandmother, who had brought Dee up in her mother’s absence. The bleakness of Dee’s existence in the charge of the authorities is made clear and is parallelled with Benni’s experiences in prison. Lawrence takes care to show that neither of them are bad people, but rather victims of their circumstances and vulnerabilities. This is done with a clear eye – there is no exemption from blame where it is due. Their stories are harrowing – there are too many nets for them to slip through.
The construction of the book is largely done through a dual narration, shared between Dee and Spey. Dee’s love of flowers runs through her sections, which are beautifully illustrated and it is these illustrations which finally help Spey to track her down, trapped in a squalid cellar and compelled to deal drugs, treated as the property of a county lines cartel. His contact with his father enables some small level of trust to be developed, which is shattered when Benni uses Spey to deflect a gangster’s wrath against him.
Splinters of Sunshine is difficult to put down. It is not only a thriller and a dangerous road trip but also an indictment of the authorities’ failure to control what harms young people who have no reliable family support. It is, despite its trawl through the worst detritus of society, a story of hope – hence the title. Dee is rescued, several villains are brought to justice and Spey’s relationship with his mother remains the touchstone of his life. The book ends with a letter from Benni to Spey in which he promises he will always leave the door open on their relationship in case Spey ever wants to see him again – and somehow, the reader is left with the hope that he will.