Reviewed by Gill Davies
The prelude to the main events of the novel is a random, terrifying sexual assault on the central character. She is a young writer, with a well-received debut novel, living in south London in a small flat with her husband Mark, a teacher. She is working in a bookshop, trying to find time to write and also several months pregnant. The anonymous violence of the attack breaks open her apparently secure world. She isn’t reassured by Mark telling her “don’t blame yourself” and “you need to let it go.” He cannot understand how profoundly she has been affected, that among its consequences are continuing fear and a desire to get far away from the place where it happened.
Three years later and now with a toddler called Sam she is unemployed and still haunted by the misogyny and inexplicable violence of the attack. Desperate to find a way out of the flat, London and her fears, she applies for and gets a lectureship in creative writing in a northern university. Mark isn’t ready to leave so she moves on her own with Sam to an isolated house in the country, dependant on public transport and with no phone signal. As all readers of thrillers will know, this can only end badly. But before the menace emerges, there is a very convincing picture of the life of a woman with a heavy burden of work and childcare and a wavering confidence in her ability to manage it all. The character has strength, humour and a great capacity to cope and to empathise. She is going to need all these qualities – but do they also make her vulnerable in a predatory world?
She is isolated and overworked in her new job – one of her “colleagues” is away on conveniently rotating sick leave, another is on a sabbatical in Canada. She’s expected to know how to teach, gets very little support, and is horrified to think of “All these new students, paying so much money, to be taught by me?” And of course in the modern university the MA students she is required to teach are needy and entitled egomaniacs. The novel is is quite funny at times, especially when it’s satirising the pompous head of department, shovelling work on to a new colleague, getting too close, and abandoning her to HR (or Human Remains as a former colleague of mine used to say) as soon as there is any trouble. The MA writers workshop itself is the place where the emotions and conflicts that drive the plot emerge and fester. There is the “Sweet American kid. Seems smart and very committed. Working on her YA werewolf novel.” Oh dear – we know she will be trouble. The self-promoting star of the group is the posh boy writing something dark and experimental who seeks a special relationship with his tutor. Then there’s the local solicitor who is producing generic crime fiction complete with raped, murdered women. These students are solely concerned with their own writing, so the workshops are horribly solipsistic. Baker is very good indeed at building up towards the accumulating crises, developing the characters and their conflicting motivations.
I have read two of Jo Baker’s previous novels, The Telling (2008) and Longbourn (2013). The former shifts between the present and the past to explore young female identity and provincial life in times of upheaval. The latter – which is a bestseller and about to be filmed – is a contemporary view of the lives of the unnoticed servants in Pride and Prejudice. Each novel plays with historical fiction, offering some of its pleasures but also inviting the reader to reflect on the present through the prism of the past. In The Body Lies, Baker again takes a generic form – this time the psychological thriller – and works it into a serious exploration of current concerns. At first we seem to be reading a campus novel – albeit one that is unusual in having a sympathetic female narrator. Then slowly the thriller element emerges and is in turn examined. One of the students has a controlling, devious personality and some mysteries in his past. The reader is engaged with the generic elements and the novel is indeed a compelling and exciting read – but Baker also critiques the thriller, making us reflect on its dangers. There have been several recent controversies over the “exploitation” of women as victims in popular fiction and film. For example, the Staunch book prize was established in 2018 to reward a thriller “in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”. It has been criticised – by Val McDermid among others – for not understanding that representation isn’t the same thing as approval. Impressively, Jo Baker manages to tackle both the representation and the reality of violence against women. This is partly done through the device of presenting the student writers’ work for us to critique. Then Baker shows how the woman is insidiously drawn into her would-be stalker’s world but she is careful to keep the unnamed narrator as the subject, never the object, never a victim of violent crime as a form of entertainment. I was particularly impressed by her understanding of the different ways women are targeted by men and find themselves adapting to a hostile, misogynistic culture.
This is a very unusual and thought-provoking novel. It works very well as serious literary fiction while at the same time keeping the reader caught up in a compelling, exciting narrative. Here is a sample from the early part of the novel:
After Sam was settled in bed, I made myself a cup of tea and sat on the doorstep. The sun was setting across the fields and the sky was silver-grey and pink. I managed to sit there for about a quarter of an hour, telling myself it was beautiful and that I could never have done this in London. But behind me swelled the empty spaces of the house, and in front of me loomed the great empty distances of field and moorland, and I felt it in my marrow then, how isolated I had made us, how alone I was with my responsibilities. A bird cried, and it startled me; my heart hammered. I got up and went inside, and I locked the door behind me.
Jo Baker, The Body Lies (Doubleday: London, 2019). 9780857526434, 273pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link.