British author Janice Hallett’s The Appeal is a cleverly constructed, meticulously detailed, often hilarious epistolary novel that kicks off with an intriguing premise. Senior law partner Roderick Tanner gives young lawyers Charlotte and Femi an important new project. In just a few days, they must work their way through a mountain of correspondence (texts, emails, instant messages) and other materials (newspaper clippings, flyers, receipts) crucial to the appeal he’ll soon be filing. But he doesn’t tell them who’s done what; he wants them to immerse themselves, to come to their own conclusions about the people in question. And quickly!
Hallett deputizes the reader right along with the lawyers with this approach, which gradually engenders an understanding of—and fascination with—a family-led amateur theater group. The close-knit Fairway Players, who are based in a small town outside London, are led by director Martin Hayward and his wife (and leading lady), Helen. They’re one big happy theatrical family, ready to mount a production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, until tragedy strikes. Martin and Helen’s granddaughter, Poppy, is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and enormously pricey experimental treatments are the only possible cure. Fundraising appeals begin in earnest alongside preparations for the play, and the stress soon begins to show in snippy text threads, contentious group chats and lots and lots of duplicitous emails.
It’s mightily impressive how skillfully Hallett shades in her characters’ personalities and ulterior motives, especially since so many of them are actors and thus adept at emotional manipulation. The layers of revelation are plentiful and pleasing—as is the feeling that, as the pages turn, the culprits and their intentions are becoming increasingly clear. Or are they? A long list of suspects (15 by this reviewer’s count!) and an endlessly shifting mass of clues add up to twists and misdirects that will keep readers a captive audience until the very end of this thought-provoking and deliciously dramatic debut.