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.