The Body Lies by Jo Baker: ‘Giving up is not consent’

Jo Baker seems to be one of those writers who can master any genre. Her last novel, A Country Road, a Tree, was a fictionalised account of Samuel Beckett’s involvement with the French Resistance. Not a theme that appealed to me but I remember very much enjoying her ghost story, The Telling. In The Body Lies, she turns her hand to thriller writing, not my customary literary terrain but it’s told from the point of view of a creative writing lecturer, an idea which intrigued me.

Our unnamed narrator is assaulted on her way home from work, managing to fight her assailant off and greatly relieved that the baby she’s carrying is unharmed. Still shaken by the assault’s aftershocks three years later, she applies for a creative writing lectureship, surprised by her acceptance on the strength of her first novel. Her husband will stay in London, unwilling to give up his teaching post, visiting her and their son at weekends. Settling in is tough: she finds herself with more work than she’d expected, teaching both undergraduates and the six MA students she’d originally imagined would make up her entire teaching load. One student, Nicholas, stands out from the other five, producing polished but disturbing assignments. Soon, he’s the centre of the group, engaging sympathy with his passages about a lost girl and his declaration that he only writes the truth. At the end of the Michaelmas term, Nicholas holds a party insisting on walking our narrator back to her isolated house and leaving her at the door. When the babysitter drives off, Nicholas reappears, and our narrator lets him in. What follows is shocking, if not entirely surprising, but the account of what Nicholas has done to her, written in the form of his latest novel extract, chills her to the bone.

I’ve been puzzled and dismayed by the seemingly endless stream of thrillers depicting violence against women, both in print and on screen; even more so as some of them are by female authors. At first, The Body Lies could be mistaken for another, if classier, take on this trope but Baker steers clear of graphic detail, choosing instead to explore the portrayal of women in fiction and the way in which they respond to violence while still smartly ratcheting up the tension. Our narrator tells much of the story but other narrative voices appear in the form of assignments from her students plus documents and statements from others. The creative writing device is a clever one and the academic details are spot on – all too familiar to this lecturer’s partner. It’s a gripping novel which offers a critique of the genre while managing to be a successful addition to it. I wonder which form Baker will explore next. Given her outlines for the MA short story submissions, I’m hoping she might have her sights set on her own collection.

19 thoughts on “The Body Lies by Jo Baker: ‘Giving up is not consent’”

  1. I don’t think I could read this, though I sense it’s well done and compelling. I must say I don’t understand why so many women write about violence to women. I find it very uncomfortable.

    1. Me, too, Ali. Not only is it distasteful but I find it pernicious. Baker’s novel works well as a critique of the genre although I can see why you might not want to read it.

  2. I’m looking forward to this for the very reason that Jo Baker does seem to be able to write in any genre. I wasn’t sure if her previous book A Country Road, A Tree was for me either but it was wonderfully well done and I’m glad I didn’t let it pass me by.

    1. Ah, perhaps I should give it a try then. She’s quite a literary chameleon, isn’t she. The short story ideas the creative writing class comes up with in this one are excellent. I have hopes she might deliver her own collection.

  3. I prefer suspense over graphic details for sure, so I just might be interested in this. Especially with the creative writing set-up included. I don’t think I’ve read anything by Baker!

  4. I’m finding the cover rather disturbing! One I’d like to read though. I’ve not read anything else by her either – didn’t she do the P&P below stairs novel? Longbourn, I think it was called.

  5. It’s quite a risk to attempt a novel in the very style that you want to critique. Jo Baker must be a rather skilled author to be able to pull it off

    1. Thanks, Janet. I had worried that this was yet another spin on a tired and upsetting theme but Baker handles it very adeptly. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  6. Just to sneak my head above the parapet here – Hi! Jo Baker here.

    Thank you for such a sensitive and insightful reading of the novel. It’s wonderful to see.

    To add to the discussion: me too, shocked and horrified (and triggered) by violence against women in fiction (and in drama) and this book was not to add to the slew of graphic, eroticised images, so much as to ask questions about it.

    I’m troubled by the way that violence against women has become such an easy trope in fiction (both drama and the novel) and particularly the way in which it’s eroticised… for me, there’s a massive gap between the everyday lived experience of violence, and the weird fictionalisations I’ve encountered. And the way in which a woman’s body so often becomes a puzzle to be solved – often by male detectives. I’m that body, if you see what I mean – I want to claim that story as my own.

    As for the genre-swerving backlist, I just keep asking myself questions about other books that seem to be only answerable with a novel. How do I fit in Austen’s world – which I love – when I know someone from my class would never get to go to the ball? How did Samuel Beckett – who I adore – go from being an acolyte of James Joyce’s, to the unique groundbreaking Nobel-Prize winning writer he was to become… and in this one, how can I negotiate with these kinds of fiction where the character I most identify with is the body on the slab…

    1. How lovely to hear from you, Jo. Unfortunately, the violence against women trope seems to have gained a vice-like grip on the bestseller list but I liked the way that you framed it within a debate about the issue. It dismays me to see the way it’s portrayed on screen, too.

      That’s an interesting answer to the backlist question and now, of course, I’m wondering which other questions you’re asking yourself. I did like the sound of some of your students’ short story ideas…

Leave a comment ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.