When a young writer accepts a job at a university in the remote countryside, it’s meant to be a fresh start away from the big city and the scene of a violent assault she’s desperate to forget. But despite the distractions of a new life and single motherhood, her nerves continue to jangle.
To make matters worse, a vicious debate about violence against women inflames the tensions and mounting rivalries in her creative writing group.
When a troubled student starts sending chapters from his novel that blur the lines between fiction and reality, the professor recognises herself as the main character in his book – and he has written her horrific fate.
The Body Lies is one of those brilliant books that gave me the rage in all the right ways. Like Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Naomi Alderman’s The Power, it is a searing indictment of contemporary sexual politics.
Jo Baker has written a deeply troubling and important novel that deftly explores consent, power and entitlement, examining how multiple pressures and societal judgement often combine to subjugate female voices and deny the truth of many women’s lived experiences.
Her narrator, a young writer who has been a victim of a violent assault, is hoping for a fresh start in the countryside and accepts a post as a creative writing tutor at a remote university. Her arrival there is far from easy however and she is soon overloaded with additional responsibilities and unsupported within an increasingly toxic managerial environment. Meanwhile her relationship with her husband, still living and working in the city, is becoming increasingly distanced and fragmented whilst one of her students, a troubled young man, is writing disturbing fiction that seems to be about her.
What struck me the most about the situation that the novel’s protagonist finds herself in is how everyday it is – it could happen to any of us. The vulnerability that is inherent in everyday female experience and the resultant threat of sexual violence and societal judgement is ever-present throughout the novel.
It is telling that, by turning a blind eye to her predicament, or excoriating her in order to protect their own reputations, the people who should have supported Baker’s narrator the most are the ones who leave her isolated and at risk. Most striking to me was the reaction of a male colleague, and apparent friend, who, on hearing that Baker’s young protagonist faces disciplinary action over her ‘relationship’ with her troubled student, immediately thinks of his own feelings towards her and accuses him of leading him on.
Later in the book there is a line about “giving up” that felt like punch to the gut. It’s almost a blink and you’ll miss it moment, the narrator reflecting on the events that have led her to that point only because she has been directly asked about them by a sympathetic police officer. But that line encapsulates so much about the way in which violent men are often excused of their actions, whilst the women they assault are judged for them.
As you can probably tell, this is not a novel for the faint-hearted. Whilst never gratuitous in its violence, amidst Baker’s accomplished and lyrical prose there is an undercurrent of menace in The Body Lies that is never far from the surface. And, given the nature of the subject matter, the book comes with trigger warnings for sexual assault and violence. That said, I feel that The Body Lies is a deeply important book and deserves to be widely read, although its content may well unsettle and trouble readers. But, for me anyway, it was a good kind of troubling.
As I said at the start of this review, The Body Lies gave me the rage in a good way. As with Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, everything that happens within this novel could happen. It shouldn’t but it could. The Body Lies is a book that wrests back control of that narrative, casting an unflinching spotlight on the way women are forced to navigate the world and the gaze that falls upon them as they do. It is a raw and challenging novel that deserves to be widely read by anyone seeking to confront this imbalance and make a difference to that lived experience.
The Body Lies by Jo Baker is published by Doubleday and is available now in hardback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers, including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me to take part in this tour. The tour continues until 28 June 2019 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and other content!