HH Stephen Wildblood KC is a force for good in the family justice system, both in and out of court. I have benefitted from reading several of his textbooks over the years and on the one occasion I appeared before him as a judge, circumstances dictated that he was the granite face of justice. I therefore approach my task of reviewing his novel, which Stephen has chosen to publish under the pseudonym Jennifer Stawska, with some trepidation.

The key character is Simon. A family law barrister. The author of a family law textbook. At the start of the book, Simon is 39 and at this tender age he finds himself ‘at the point where I was thinking with the endemic paranoia of the Bar about whether to apply for silk or apply to sit as a part-time judge, a Recorder’. Although The Water is Warm does not proclaim an autobiographical angle, it is an almost irresistible diversion trying to second guess how this now retired judge ticks.

The book has several themes. Weaved into the story we find the pain and insecurity bred by the loss of loved ones, a search for meaning and religion, and a certain distain for life at the Bar. It even has some (Miranda voice ~ whispering ~) sex.

Simon is outwardly successful and based in the Temple, London but unhappily married to a commercial solicitor. His father committed suicide when Simon was a young boy and he carries this grief as part of his personality. He miserably contemplates ‘constantly wanting to be one better than those who surround me so as to prove myself in a never-ending quest, believing that everyone else had a more complete way of life and that I needed to prove my worth as I searched for my own completeness’.

He is a junior to a glamorous silk in a care case in which the mother, herself a barrister, is accused of the non-accidental injury of her baby. The stakes are very high: ‘Miss an argument or fail to take a point and a case can swing all too easily from 40:60 one way to 60:40 the other way.’ After the case concludes, Simon falls into a relationship with the mother, bringing to an end his unhappy marriage, but the care case looms over Simon’s new relationship and matters soon take a dramatic turn.

Simon then decides to leave the Bar and travels east with his divorce settlement. He finds himself in Sri Lanka when the tsunami strikes in 2004. More particularly, he is on the infamous train at Peraliya. Simon is badly injured but is assisted by a young boy, Sunil, who has just lost his parents in the tragedy. Simon plays a significant role in Sunil’s life, comparing it to the role of a foster parent helping a child be ready for the next stage in their life.

While convalescing Simon is attended upon by a male Swedish nurse, Josh. They strike up a deep friendship and the previously heterosexual Simon finds himself surprised to have fallen in love. Their relationship develops in the aftermath of the tsunami reparations and in the shadow of looming civil war. They are based in Unawatuna Bay, where the water is warm. Simon and Josh seek meaning and religion in a perfect but temporary ideal.

The book is written in the first person by Simon, save for the last chapter which is reserved for an old friend of his at the Bar, Jennifer Stawska, who reflects upon what has come to pass. The writing style is detailed reportage. The circumstances of the 2004 tsunami are researched extensively and there are lots of facts. I was left wondering whether HHJ Wildblood KC would have wanted so much in a statement in his court? But Simon is left to tell his story in granular detail. The brutal twist at the end genuinely shocks and puts a very different complexion on what has been written.

Aside from being a contender for the Bar wellbeing reading list, the book has some enjoyable reflections on advocacy, from irritations at ‘sanctimonious mulch’ and long-winded submissions, to tricks of the trade including making that killer point at the end of a closing speech. In essence, the advice is to choose your words sparingly and make them memorable.

Overall, legal readers will probably feel more at home in the first part of the book. There are numerous well-made observations which entertain or prompt reflection. The second half takes us to places which are more unfamiliar and at times disquieting. This appears to have been the author’s intention. This second part might have been a little shorter and at times the chronology exchanged for a canvass. But perhaps I am being over-critical.

That a very busy Circuit judge ever found the time to research such a novel speaks volumes about Stephen’s talents and hinterland. This has been a most engaging read, and I would commend it to the legal and non-legal reader alike. 

ISBN 978-1785453397 Brown Dog Books