Lilly Valentine is an attractive redhead, a solicitor with a heart of gold and a penchant for chocolate, ice cream and macaroni cheese. She is doing well on the lawyer's career ladder, having been promoted from representing children on legal aid into a more mainstream role, en route for a possible partnership with her Luton firm. Her personal life is looking good – although divorced and having to agree with ex-husband David's wish to educate their son Sam at the local public school, Lilly gets on well with everyone and is in a good relationship with devoted police detective Jack McNally, a handsome Irish charmer.
The main plot of this engaging novel involves asylum seekers, apparently from Kosovo. A group of these immigrants live in a hostel in the village, and at the start of the book one of them, Anna, is raped by two of the boys from Sam's posh school ,an event watched in horror by a third, Luke. Wracked with guilt, 16-year-old Luke runs away, unable to cope with telling his parents or teachers what has happened, or to face his guilty but unrepentant “friends”. Part of the book tells the story of Luke's survival on the streets of London's West End and the rough area of Peckham, where there is a project to help homeless youths. Luke meets the streetwise Caz, and together they try to survive. Parts of this plot are successful, bringing it home to the reader just how easy it is for people to slip through the net of society, but for some reason the author writes this sub-plot in the present tense, which for me grates a bit.
The main story concerns Lilly, who has reluctantly been drawn into looking after, and then defending, Anna when the vulnerable refugee is accused of being complicit in a crime. The girl is traumatized by her experiences so cannot explain the recent crime – and the only witness, Luke, has run away. Lilly knows that the only way she can help the girl is to discover her past experiences that have bought her to the United Kingdom, which eventually, when revealed, are unexpected and moving.
A PLACE OF SAFETY is written with sympathy and humour. There are many amusing set-pieces, and it is a relief to read about a heroine who is a size 14 and turns up to a memorial service in footless fishnet tights because that's all she has that is clean. At the same time, she's struggling with an ex-husband who has very different values, a confused son and an overdeveloped social conscience.
The author tries to make the reader question our cosy social assumptions, tackling racism, poverty and snobbery from all points of view. Some of the plot did not strike me as that authentic – would Lily really be left completely alone to deal with the entirety of Anna's case? Luke seems to fall in too easily with people who help him survive on the streets – though other parts of his experiences are harrowing and seem more authentic. Overall, I was impressed by the author's commitment and her ability to tell a good story while maintaining a clear moral voice.