Written by Louise Doughty — A psychological thriller about a respectable middle-aged woman and the consequences of her disastrous choices? This is certainly not typical thriller territory, but all the more appealing and unexpected for it. I loved this slow burner of a story which ignites into a nail-biting finale. The structure of the book is unusual, as it seems to start with the end – a trial where the heroine and her lover stand accused of conspiracy to murder, and a ruthless barrister has a fatal trick up her sleeve. Then we go back in time and gradually discover the back story, the many layers that are inherent in even the simplest of life stories, or the happiest of marriages.
Dr Yvonne Carmichael is a respectable genomic research scientist in her early 50s, married to an equally successful scientist, with grown children who have moved away from home. Her life is orderly, calm, beyond reproach. She is the external examiner for university postgraduate programmes and is occasionally called upon to give scientific evidence to a parliamentary select committee. Yvonne Carmichael is not the kind of woman to throw caution to the wind.
Yet at one such parliamentary hearing, she encounters the slightly predatory and sinister charms of a man who remains nameless for most of the book, and who becomes her lover. The two of them fall into a sort of folie à deux – an almost teenage obsession with passion for lustful encounters and living dangerously. Doughty manages to hint at Yvonne’s feverish obsession, her desire for submission, her desperation for a reply or a sign of affection, without straying too far into Fifty Shades of Grey territory. In fact, Yvonne has moments of lucidity during which she envisages the end of their relationship, and the absurdity of some of their melodramatic meeting arrangements. Her lover’s excessive predilection for secrecy make her suspect that he is a spook.
Nevertheless, she cannot let go and gets sucked ever deeper into a mire of deceit and adultery. After a horrifying experience at a departmental party, Yvonne’s life becomes ever more complicated, and you feel you are watching an accident in slow motion. There is a sense of inevitability about it, yet you feel a lot of sympathy for her heroine and keep wishing she would make different choices. This is not just a nerve-wracking thriller, but also a touching tale of a mid-life crisis of sorts. This is possibly the last hurrah of a woman who feels she has sacrificed too much, been too decent and selfless all her life, contributed more than her fair share to the family and to society. For once, she is doing something for herself… and yet the consequences are fatal.
Full of sharp, yet almost throwaway observations about women and careers, the differences between men and women, about love and long-term relationships, this book was nothing like what I expected. This was a fascinating read, reminiscent of Nicci French in top form, yet with an added twinge of melancholy.
Faber & Faber
CFL Rating: 4 Stars