Monday, 24 June 2013

Book Review: Louise Doughty's 'Apple Tree Yard' (Faber and Faber)

Reluctant to take a hard back on holiday my wonderfully lovely local book shop (Atkinson & Pryce, Biggar http://www.atkinson-pryce.co.uk ) gave me their publisher's draft of Louise Doughty's Apple Tree Yard (out last week - Faber& Faber).

I'd listened to the presenter and social commentator, Mariella Frostrup, discussing it with the author on Mariella's Radio 4 show, 'Open Book' on the 16th June - and was intrigued. Really intrigued.

I took the plain red-bound book home and marvelled at it. Desperate to open and begin - reminding myself of a need to be disciplined and pack it away. But...

I've had a slow weekend of home-aloneness (this is the time for end-of-term parties and retirement do's) and holiday-packing-for-all (are men born with an inherent inability to pack for their own holiday?). Faced with interminable tidying and sorting or reading the holiday book before I went on holiday, I eventually gave in and started reading. Sneakily at first. Promising 'only the first chapter'. Then greedily. Un-put-down-ably.

I've finished it.

And I feel as if someone has punched me hard. Knocked me down to the ground. Trampled on the illusions which keep us women feeling safe.

It should be required reading.

If you want to read the novel and don't want to know what happened, please don't read on...Just Go Buy The Book!!

For this is a book about the violence done to women in the name of patriarchy - violence that starts with the new-born's inculcation into a society that limits the roles that are open or to be viewed as acceptable both for and to women, culminating in rape and a trial that imposes the social 'moral strait-jacket' into which a 'good' 'deserving' woman must fit if she is to be believed.

Doughty's novel is timely. Coming when the political discourse is about what constitutes 'real rape' (Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke - and his comments regarding 'serious rape' May 2011?); 'domestic violence' and what it means to be abused by your partner (Nigella Lawson and the very public assault upon her by her husband Saatchi?) and when budget cuts ensure that women suffer most, it is right that we should be reminded of the social powerlessness of the female. And then feel anger.

Opening with minutely described scene which places the main character, Yvonne Carmichael, in the Old Bailey where she is on trial for an as yet undisclosed crime, the novel nails to perfection the courtroom and its players - and reveals just enough to ensure that we want to know what has brought this clever powerful woman to this place.

Yvonne is a geneticist who has reached the top of her profession. She is an influential, respected and admired academic. She was married immediately after her first degree to fellow scientist, Guy and they have two grown-up children, Adam and Sarah. Sarah is an academic scientist (though in a different field) and Adam is a struggling musician, a drifter who was diagnosed many years ago with bipolar disorder. We learn that Guy has had an affair with a younger PhD student, Rosa but that Yvonne and he remain together in their sexless (not loveless) marriage. Yvonne suffers guilt over Adam's illness - displayed in her over-readiness to weaken suggestions of a genetic connection with her own Mother's depressions and eventual suicide.

Yvonne is 51 years and 'small and cute'. She takes pleasure in her appearance. She is physically attractive but not flamboyant. Her approach to living is methodical and rational. She prides herself on being 'scientific'. Her life has been 'safe'. Characterised by safe choices. By socially acceptable choices.

And yet one day, whilst attending as an expert witness for a Parliamentary Committee, she meets a Parliamentary employee - a stranger with whom she forms an immediate and overwhelming intimacy - and they have sex in the Crypt Chapel. Sex which is 'like being devoured by a wolf'.

They begin a 'relationship'. They engage in high-risk public sex acts and she is obsessed by him. Her rational scientific mind struggles to understand precisely what is happening to her and why she should be behaving in this way. She just knows she wants him. And he wants her.

Yet she knows nothing about him. Not even his name.

A few weeks into the 'relationship' with the stranger she attends a Faculty party. She drinks too much and ends up drunk. A colleague, George Craddock, offers to help her. Alarm bells begin to sound for the reader when he makes several aggressive remarks about 'a woman like you'. He leads her to his office where he slaps her, terrifies her, rapes her, forces her to fellate him and sodomises her. She suffers light external but deep internal bruising, an anal tear. He then shares her taxi home behaving as though what has happened was consensual and leaving less than half of the fare - on the basis that his part of the journey was shorter.

The scene is nasty, brutal, evil. George states several times that he thinks this is what she'll 'like'.

The court scene is the endgame for this brutal assault. It is where it all finally plays out. All the strands coming together.

I found the read painful but compelling. There is just too much truth. I recognise too much - Yvonne Carmichael is everywoman.

Because fundamentally, women are 'understood' and valued through their physical currency. The female body is evaluated and it is taken for granted that it is a body that's forever available to the men who are doing the measuring.

From the very young male students who weigh and measure Yvonne's physical appearance and who presume sex; to the husband who shags his student - women's sexuality, a woman's life, is seen as something that is to be subordinated to the male need.

It's said as an aside - but despite Guy and Yvonne planning their children to ensure that both their PhDs would be finished just before the children get to school, Guy's is in fact finished in 3 years and Yvonne's takes 7 years. A woman's professional life is subordinated to her husband and her childrens' needs. A woman's life is not her own.

The scene with the policeman who talks through the rape and possible options is a harrowing reminder of how the system (both social and court) works against the rape victim:

'Well, injuries don't mean anything unless there's a record of them anyway.' Kevin says. 'Unless you've been examined by a professional and they are recorded. And even then when we have injuries, if the man claims it was consensual S&M, it's quite hard to prove otherwise.'

'But if he had beaten me to a pulp, then we would be in with a chance?'

Kevin takes the question seriously. 'Yes, but the fact that you were drunk would still count against you. Alcohol is a gift to the offence.'

I don't reply. I want Kevin to continue - I need to hear this, all of it.

Kevin takes a deep breath, leans forward in his seat. 'The first thing his solicitor will do, as soon as he's charged, will be to hire a private detective. Any secrets in your past? I keep my gaze on Kevin. I do not look at you. He continues. 'Internet searches, questioning friends and family and work colleagues, starts with that. If there's nothing in your present life, they will get to work on your past, starting with tracking down your sexual history, all your old boyfriends. They will be looking for anyone who says you like being hit or you like it rough. Any sex videos, topless photos, that kind of thing.'


This is a book that our mothers and daughters must read. More effective than any Friedan or Dworkin or Hanisch or...

I saw this, this week. Seems appropriate.

A woman is someone's 
Mother, daughter, wife....

4 comments:

  1. Awful. I was just warning a girlfriend about to overturn her unhappy and complicated marriage and contemplate joining another man - Whatever you do to end a marriage, you will always be judged as the harlot, the schemer, the home wrecker. Women are always expected to make the ultimate sacrifice - their happiness and wellbeing - for this notion of family. I know that when I left my first husband - weighing under 40kg, depressed beyond help, isolated in my gilded diplomatic cage, I fell in love to save myself and was viewed as a tramp and a user. My kids now make the same complaints about him! My second husband (a crazy passionate choice) kidnapped our kid when I told him I had to leave him for my sanity. Oh the battles of women! Sounds like a gripping and disturbing book. Xx

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    1. Absolutely Cat. It's too true. When my close pal left an abuser he was the one who went round all their acquaintances painting her as the unreasonable one. Saddest thing? That many of them (unworthy bastards) preferred his version of events - some of them saying to me 'but X is so confident and strong - there's no way that Y could have done that to her'... We are always the harlots. How many times have I heard 'there would be no bad men if there were no bad women'. Or have we all heard 'what would you leave him for - he doesn't beat you; he's a reasonable provider and father...'

      Dear lord woman - you've had your troubles. I'm just glad you've survived to be irrepressibly YOU!

      The Doughty book was deeply disturbing - but also exceptionally well-written. I'll send you my proof copy if you fancy a read.

      And now I must get myself organised and ready for holiday departure tomorrow night... :-) x

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  2. Hey Yvonne, Hope the holiday as ggod as it looked!
    Just finished reading Apple Tree Yard after you and Karen's recommendations. Agree totally with all you say ... powerful read.
    I would add one part which particularly disturbed me .... at the trial when X's defence barrister, Ms Bonnard, questions Yvonne about her 'promiscuity' - the questions being a too-obvious attempt to paint Yvonne in a bad light, come, we learn, from Yvonne's attempt at a joke that she is 'cheap 'n' easy' (she is, you'll recall, refering to her coffee preferences). Ms Bonnard states she has a witness who can testify that Yvonne told George she was promiscious. That this 'witness' would be the other lecturer, Sandra, - a woman - is/was a shocker. Appreciating that okay a murder has been committed and that the writer leaves anything more about how this conversation has came to light without comment so we do not know the context, I think there is also a further thread running through the book which is one whereby - for whatever mad reasons they do so - women are often only too willing to condemn their own 'sisters'. There is the overtness of the use of female barristers in trials where it is believed their gender will assist and, yes you are correct (as I hear you say!) this is all part of the whole patriarchial society we live in .... but some 'sisters' appear to not only adopt an 'if we can't beat them..' attitude but also wholly embrace the culture and not 'join' but excel!
    I thought there was a huge focus on Yvonne's own female-in-a-male-worldness and how she has, on one level, embraced the culture and perhaps a little insight into this is towards the end where she admits she was 'entirely male' about her whole affair.
    But ... to return to my point ... I felt huge shock at how it was another woman - Sandra - who had provided this ammunition for Ms Bonnard's questioning and did wodner if I'd missed some subtleness where Sandra indicated even professional jealousy of Yvonne (there wasn't that I saw, though Yvonne does comment that she believed George was professionaly envious of her ... perhaps Yvonne believed only a male would be so but that the 'sisters' would be merely proud of her achievements??)

    Anyhow ... I truly have digressed ... great book. So many thought-provoking strands to it. You are correct ... should be required reading.

    J

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    1. Thanks J. Glad you read the book.
      Sorry I didn't mention the court cross-exam and 'sisterhood' betrayal. It's one of the most important bits!
      Here, the rules re not referring to 'the character of the victim' are routinely got around. Easily circumvented. Justified in the name of relevancy. Oh God. The anger you feel when it happens. When a defence agent starts to rip to shreds your client's reputation... It is a game. Strategy. Always played in a way that is of least assistance to women. But that's the world we live in.
      And 'sisters' - well sometimes our sisters are the most misguided and judgemental... I'm thinking of the twitter abusers who attacked the female campaigner (the one who campaigned for Jane Austen's face on money...) - so many were women. One said in defence of the original male troll: 'you should be flattered not insulted that he said you were worth raping'.
      Oh for fuck sake J. There are so many examples of this. Fear of the power of any woman.
      I'm going to re-read the book. I read it in a fast fury - I need to go back and make more sense...
      The holiday was fab. Granada was AMAZING! The Alhambra just breath-taking... Yxx

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