The Body Lies by Jo Baker
The story begins with the unnamed narrator being hit in the face and groped in the street on her way home from work, while pregnant. Her injuries are minor but she is, of course, shocked by the attack and nervous about going out alone afterwards.
We then skip forward in time. The narrator now has a three-year-old and, still wanting to escape the scene of her attack and hoping for a more affordable quality of life, has been offered a job teaching a creative writing MA at a university in North Lancashire. At first, she assumes her husband Mark will resign from his teaching job and they'll relocate together, but the timing is bad and they agree that she and Sam will make the move to a rented property up north, while Mark will finish the school year in London and visit at weekends until it's a good time for him to move permanently.
Alone with her little boy in a remote moorland cottage, the narrator takes time to adjust to her new lifestyle and to her new job. Her students are working on projects ranging from a YA werewolf fantasy to a magical realist short story collection, and she soon has to manage a conflict within the group when one student, Nicholas, is angered by another's depiction of a murdered woman in his crime novel and demands that such material be prefaced with a trigger warning. Deeply wedded to the notion that fiction should be both experimental and fundamentally truthful, Nicholas himself is writing a stream of consciousness novel that's clearly based on his own experiences and suggests that he is a deeply traumatised young man. And soon, the narrator starts to recognise one of the characters in his novel: it's her.
As psychological thrillers go, this one is perhaps on the more literary side. It's told not just through the narrator herself but also through extracts of her students' work and through some formal statements which appear to have been made as part of an internal investigation at the university, although we don't know into what. As the narrator is herself a writer, the descriptions of the people and places in the book are vivid and atmospheric. The story looks at women in books and the prevalence of crime novels about the murder of young women, and the way those victims are depicted. It also asks plenty of questions about relationships and power imbalances and consent. How much ownership do we have of someone else's story, especially when both parties interpret their shared narrative very differently?
However, I think there are many flaws to The Body Lies which made it an ultimately rather frustrating read. It does feel at times that the author is trying to do something quite meta with this book, and that its cleverer conceits come at the expense of pace and plot. It doesn't matter how literary your thriller is: if you are writing a thriller, you still need to execute the genre elements perfectly in addition to your big ideas, and I don't think think Jo Baker achieves that here.
To begin with, making the on-street assault the thing that sparks the entire story feels off-balance and out of step with the rest of the book. Yes, there are themes of misogyny and consent in the story, but they would be there without this event at the start, which feels superfluous. It's presented as being one of the primary reasons for the narrator to relocate, and yet the relocation takes place three years later. The assault is distressing and would certainly leave anyone shaken up, but - and I speak here as someone who once suffered an assault that was not dissimilar - I don't think a relocation after three years is plausibly proportionate. I can see that she might have chosen to move earlier one when her son was still a baby and the incident was still raw, but not three years later. Moreover, the casualness with which the narrator and her husband essentially decide to live largely apart - particularly given the presence of a small child in their relationship - seemed highly unlikely.
Another major stumbling block is Nicholas. Nicholas is awful. He's spoiled, self-absorbed, privileged and laughably pretentious - and yet the narrator seems remarkably tolerant of all this, even at times impressed by him and at the very least, fascinated. She's older than him, more independent. She has a child and has just made a huge life decision with her new career, while Nicholas behaves like a sixth former and lives with his rich parents.
She also seems infuriatingly passive at work and oddly naive and her behaviour often felt more like that of a 20-year-old undergraduate than a professional woman teaching an MA. There were several moments when she made odd assumptions with no real basis - for example, she assumes for weeks that two people who have shown absolutely no signs of being in a couple are in a relationship, with no real indication of why. It all seemed peculiarly arbitrary, and unnecessary to either plot or theme - ditto the narrator's estrangement from her mother, which is mentioned twice but with such brevity and lack of explanation that it seemed like a pointless addition to the narrative.
Finally, there was nothing at all about this book that surprised me - I don't think there was a single incident that I didn't see coming. Again, this wouldn't necessarily be a problem were this not styled as a psychological thriller - if you try to give a book the trappings of genre, you can certainly subvert them but you can't ignore the fundamentals. Ultimately, The Body Lies felt like a wasted opportunity, or an early draft of a better book.