I loved Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty. So much so that I read it in one sitting on the sleeper to London and continued to think about it for much of the weekend after I’d closed the final page. Did Apple Tree Yard force itself into my consciousness in the same way? In a word: no.
Louise Doughty is a very talented writer, she teaches it too, after all. It wasn’t a lack of skill on her part or the lack of an interesting premise that left me feeling so unsatisfied with Apple Tree Yard. I think, after much careful consideration, that it was the narrator Yvonne’s voice that I just couldn’t lose myself in. The ‘Unreliable Narrator’ is a much-loved device and where it works, it works very well. Here though, I just found Yvonne’s filtering of events made an intriguing idea a bit of a slog – and its denouement although credibly constructed, ultimately much less satisfying.
It seems fashionable just now to go for a ’Big Reveal’ at the start of a novel and spend the rest of the story working our way back to that point in the narrative, so here we go: Yvonne Carmichael, leading geneticist is in the dock – in the Old Bailey no less. The very mention of Apple Tree Yard from the prosecution makes her realise that they know more about her hidden life than she initially realised which will complicate her defense in the most challenging way imaginable. It is here, just at the point where we think we might be about to understand what’s going on, that we are dragged by the ankles back to the beginning of a wildly passionate affair which is to be the beginning of Yvonne’s undoing.
Yvonne is an eminent scientist. She deals in facts and certainties and is the most unlikely person imaginable to embark upon a dangerous affair with a man she knows almost nothing about. And that’s largely the point. Her safe, logical and ordered life is thrown into disarray when a chance meeting leads to a reckless sexual liaison in the Chapel in the Crypt. From then on she is thrown – middle aged libido knicker dampeningly re-energised– into a world of fleeting sexual encounters, pay as you go mobile phones and late night emails. The juxtaposition between who she thinks she is and where she is then led is well handled and is sure to strike a chord with many women of a certain age. The sex scenes were also credible – Yvonne awkwardly trying to pull her tights back on in a way that never happened with Christian Grey for example – but never seemed to be very…erm…sexy.
There are too many spoiler hazards involved in explaining exactly how this affair leads to Yvonne’s inexorable slide into violence and the Old Bailey : the plot is skilfully constructed and moves us forward at a cracking pace once the affair begins. But – the style of narration Doughty has chosen means that Yvonne spends much of her time spilling her heart out retelling events to X : a person who was a) there for much of the narrative anyway and b) not really all that gripped by her internal narrative in the first place.
The novel does ask questions about our self perception; our judgement of others and the way that women are judged in the judicial system: all laudable and interesting questions. But I am left in serious doubt whether the dry factual voice of Yvonne is best placed to turn the bookgroups upside down in pursuit of the answers to these big questions. Jumping into a liaison with an unreliable narrator takes as big a leap of faith as it took for Yvonne to be ravaged by X in the crypt. And to be totally beguiled by this narrative you would have to turn an equally blind eye to Yvonne’s shortcomings as a narrator to the one she turns to X as a lover.
Apple Tree Yard is a page turner. It asks interesting questions about sympathy, violence and sexuality – as well as the criminal justice system and women’s place in the 21st century. However, for me the key to a narrative told by a character who is initially difficult to like is to ultimately make us care about their fate despite their unappealing aspects. Whilst there can be no denying that Yvonne’s bad judgements lead her into a nightmare situation which you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, I found myself retaining more sympathy for her husband’s quiet act of valour at the end of the novel than I could for Yvonne’s plight throughout. Yvonne talks about: “The stories we tell in order to make sense of ourselves, to ourselves,” and Doughty dedicates the novel to “everyone who walks around knowing the truth to be different.” If you’re interested in layers of truth and our abilities for self deception you will be intrigued by Doughty’s depiction of a safe life destroyed in a moment.
Any Cop?: As a Louise Doughty fan, I’m not going to say that it was a bad read. I’m just disappointed that the way that I’ve been seized by her other novels in the past was not replicated here.