Four essential social work novels showing the realities of the job

Henry Bladon looks at four social work novels and their portrayal of social workers

Photo: Carballo/Fotolia

by Henry Bladon

Media articles relating to social work often do little but denigrate the profession and generate heavy sighs in the office. Similarly, fiction writers who latch on to tired stereotypes of do-gooders, child removers and hand-wringers not only show a lack of imagination, but perhaps fail to fully understand the role.

So what do you want? Something with more understanding, I would suggest. Certainly something more informed and intelligent. And if the work is also entertaining, so much the better.

Here are several works of fiction where social workers might find themselves murmuring approval.

The Casual Vacancy

In The Casual Vacancy (2002) J.K Rowling depicts Kay, a children’s social worker who works in Social Services in ‘an ugly 1970s office block’ and deals with people in a sink estate. Nothing particularly innovative here, and the predictable elements of her story centres about her clients whose lives involve prostitution, methadone use and petty crime.

We learn later in the book about an inquiry following the death of a toddler which seems to implicate Kay and her colleague, Mattie, is already ‘signed off with stress again’. These problems interweave with her problematic relationship with partner, Gavin. Okay, this is a stereotypical depiction, but at least it acknowledges some of the difficulties of the role.

 The Believers

The second offering is The Believers (2008), by Zoe Heller. Heller’s work, although a bleak depiction of American family life, invokes the idea of social workers as helpers. Her social work character, Karla, is described as ‘a very good person’, which is worthy but not particularly groundbreaking.

We are then told that her people thought of her as a ‘born social worker’. Her father advised her to ‘train for one of the caring professions…Nursing, or something like that. You’re a nurturer’.

The thing is, Karla’s selflessness becomes evident when she is saved from an attacker, as she tries to ensure that he is not punished. More evidence of her kindheartedness runs through the novel, as we see in a passage later in the book. ‘Karla was not unaccustomed to dealing with people who were hard to help’. In a book full of predominantly dislikeable characters, Karla stands up well.

 The Absolution Game

In The Absolution Game (1996), Paul Sayer (who was a mental health nurse and won the Whitbread Prize for his first novel, The Comforts of Madness), depicts an overworked social worker struggling with the pressures of the system in which he works. His character, Bob Munro, is hardworking and dedicated, but he is also a realist.

Although he is shown struggling with the pressures of the system, (‘I have to spend the morning in the office, my turn to take the endless stream of calls that arrive for me and my overstretched colleagues’), Sayer also presents Bob as a likeable individual in a way that the reader feels some positive emotion towards him.

Bob is a loner, an outsider, isolated in his solitary existence and seemingly doomed to have continued bad luck. An engaging first-person narrative draws the reader in as we see Bob’s work ethic and thoughtfulness towards his work colleagues and clients alike.

He conducts his job with a jaded professionalism, at one time admitting his reluctance to attend a tricky case which he knows he will ultimately attend ‘owing to a lifelong inability to let people down’.

Known to Social Services

The final offering is a novel written by a real-life social worker. While we get familiar themes, we also see someone who carries her dedication beyond the confines of her work. Freya Barrington’s book, Known to Social Services (2015), details the work of social worker Diane Foster, on the fictional Deacon Hill housing estate.

In her interview with Community Care, Barrington said that she just felt she needed to write ‘not for me, not my own story as such – but I wanted to raise awareness for social workers with the general public’.

This book certainly provides a powerful insight into the daily work practices that will be familiar to many social workers. The headline story about a dedicated and conscientious professional and the pressures she faces includes late hours, working at home, and troublesome relations with clients.

These elements are all part of Diane’s lot. And, who else would her boss, Glenda, give these complex cases? Many social workers would recognise this sentence: ‘I’ve got three workers off sick, two on maternity leave, and the rest are newly qualified?’ Diane also suffers the inevitable client hostility, ‘we don’t need you here, the kids are just fine’.

The impact of the role on Diane’s personal life is not forgotten, with various relationships suffering as a result of her commitment to her job. Predictably, she blames herself. Or, rather, her job. At times, Diane is overworked and struggling to cope. Barrington provides examples of the pressure under which Diane works.

This is a commonplace experience for social workers, one often used by the press to suggest ineptitude. Barrington, however, adopts a more empathetic tone, such that the reader sees the struggle from the side of the professional. Barrington adds, ‘I so desperately want people to understand where I’m coming from.’ Reading her book, it feels that she has achieved her aim.

How do these books help?

These books offer affirmation, because they humanize the social work role. They also highlight a reflective component where practitioners can identify and perhaps even question elements of their own work.

To see fictional works as sympathetic to the difficulties faced by social workers is to take some comfort that the role is not without its supporters. In the age of blame, this is surely to be encouraged. More fiction like this, please!

Henry Bladon is a final year PhD student in creative writing. His research focus is fiction and mental health. 


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6 Responses to Four essential social work novels showing the realities of the job

  1. Tim G May 10, 2017 at 10:40 am #

    What about? – The Losers by David Eddings – normally better known for swords and sorcery epics, he surprised me with some excellent insight into social work issues in this 1993 novel.

  2. Blair McPherson May 10, 2017 at 1:51 pm #

    The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was recommend to me as a social work student looking for an alternative to those dry academic social work books. My generation was rebelling against the ” and how do you feel about living in a rat infested house Mrs Smith” in favour of a more pragmatic approach. The art of Motorcycle Maintenance offered this. I remember one account of the social worker trying to talk a troubled and angry adolescent out of storming off on his powerful motor bike following a row with his parents. The social workers intervention was to grab the keys and drop them down the road side drain!
    I bought the books but didn’t get past the first few chapters. Turns out if you want to know what social work is like you can’t do better that a placement in a busy inner city team.

  3. Ian Merry May 10, 2017 at 4:11 pm #

    The book I would choose to exemplify good social work is “Paid Servant” by E.R. Braithwaite who was a remarkable man. E.R. Braithwaite passed away last year aged 104. He is best known for his 1st book “To Sir With Love” based on his experiences as a black teacher in a tough Inner London secondary school in the1950’s but he also worked as a social worker in London from 1958 to 1960,finding foster homes for non-white children, whose experiences informed his 2nd book, “Paid Servant”.

    I urge all to search this book out and compare it with modern social work. His honesty, integrity and compassion were sorely tested at times but he rose above it all to reveal his deep and abiding kindness and generosity of spirit that made him a true humanitarian.

  4. Jadwiga Leigh May 13, 2017 at 8:23 am #

    Can I add Cultivating Mad Cow by Kathryn Littlewood? It’s a must read. Kathryn was a child protection social worker and then became mentally unwell and attempted suicide. This novel is written so well as it intersperses tragedy with humour and explores what happens to professionals who find they are suddenly in need of a service.

  5. Amanda Taylor May 17, 2017 at 9:34 pm #

    Great piece Henry, really enjoyed reading it and hope to follow up on yoru recommendations.

    You might want to consider reading the suggested texts in a ‘group’ and using @SWBookGroup #swbk to host events

    Have a look here … and contact @JenSPSWer for more information


    • Henry Bladon May 22, 2017 at 6:16 pm #

      Thanks, Amanda. I’ll take a look at the link.