The best way I feel I can describe this book is with an oxymoron – it was subtly phenomenal. Louise Doughty managed to put this book together in a way that was somehow very calm and collected. It’s definitely not what you expect from the subject matters it deals with. But it’s a read that will play endlessly on your mind and keep pulling you back for more.
Considering that the book deals with two very sordid issues, I was surprised to find that it was written this way. There was very little hysteria in the narrative voice, not much trauma either. As we’re dealing with first an affair, then a rape and finally a murder, I would have expected the writing to be completely saturated with emotion. Yet a lot of the time, it felt like Yvonne (the main character) had pushed mute on everything. As if she was just a lone woman, in a dark and empty room, narrating a story that she had found the time to significantly distance herself from even though it was all about her.
In short, the novel frames itself around a murder trial. Yvonne Carmichael, a middle aged genetic scientist at the height of her career, enters into an affair with a man she meets at the Houses of Parliament while she is appearing before a standing committee. She is giving scientific evidence of recent research on developments in computer sequencing in genome mapping – which gives you an idea of the kind of woman she is: highly successful, very intelligent, quite confident. The man she meets approaches her after she’s given her speech, as she is leaving and he offers her a tour of the building. From that afternoon onwards, Yvonne has entered into a slightly unusual affair. Without giving too much away, there’s a lot of risk involved and their excitement feeds off the taboo of what they are doing.
In the second part of the story, we find out why Yvonne and her unnamed lover are on trial in the novel’s prologue. Two crimes are committed in this section and we hear about both of them quite differently. The first is very graphic and quite uncomfortable to read. I’ve read scenes similar to it in the past, but they haven’t been written like this one. The second crime is barely described as Yvonne leaves us to make of what little she tells us, what we will.
The third part of the novel details the trial. We hear the evidence, we hear all the cross-examinations and then we hear the verdict. The only criticism I have of this part, is that throughout the novel Yvonne mentions the reaction of her lover’s wife when he is on trial at court – yet this reaction is never detailed. Finally, we hear what happens afterwards and on the final page, we get the final twist.
For me, the final two parts of the story were the best. After a couple of chapters into the first part of the novel (which details the affair), I was sort of bored. At times I felt like the characters in the story were far too old for me to be reading about. I’m 21 and a university student, with only a handful of life experience and the characters were middle aged men and women, with grown up children, successful careers and married lives to be settled into. Not that I haven’t read about this kind of lifestyle before, but the narration was so mature at times that I found it difficult to connect with Yvonne. Of course, that’s not a criticism of Louise Doughty at all. It’s just something to bear in mind if you’re my age and thinking of reading this. It’s a book that I would recommend to my mum and her friends, but that’s not to say that I didn’t absolutely enjoy it either.
A lot of the time, I found it very difficult to empathise with Yvonne’s character. She was having an affair with a man she met for about two seconds after giving a lecture and the two side by side seem almost ridiculous. The opening chapter establishes her as a woman with all the success most people dream of and it seemed crazy to me that she would be willing to risk her career and married life for a series of short… excitements. Later, she seemed to justify her actions using the fact that her husband had once had an affair too, as if that meant that she deserved her bit of fun too. She says towards the novel’s close, that there are two types of adulterers in this world: the repeat types and the one-offs. She says that the repeat types need to have affairs and will be unfaithful no matter who they marry, even though they might convince themselves that with somebody else they might have been different. Then she tells us that she would never have had an affair if she didn’t meet that man in the Houses of Parliament. Although she admits that neither one is less morally corrupt than the other, in trying to distinguish between the two in the first place, she attempts to dissolve the severity of her actions. At no point in the novel did I feel like she felt remorse for cheating on her husband.
I think that what makes this novel so brilliant overall however, is the characterisation. I think its in the penultimate chapter that we hear Yvonne analysing why she thinks her partner in crime did what he did and the psychology behind the things she says it actually really interesting. There seems to be a sort of personality disorder behind the man she is having an affair with. Without giving too much away, there’s also a lot going on with the offender in the first crime too. Not to mention the fact that Yvonne’s husband had an affair and that there is a history of mental illness in her family. The fact that she addresses the whole novel to ‘My love’, the man she was having an affair with, also speaks for itself. I don’t know about you, but after finding out the things I found out about him during that trial, I wouldn’t be addressing him at all. But the final twist brings everything together in a way that makes us understand that these are all messed up people. That what Yvonne admits to having said in the final chapter is not a joke at all.
It’s been difficult to write this review without giving away a bunch of spoilers, but this is one book I think you need to read without knowing too much. I would actually say that it might even be one of my favourite psychological crime novels to date!