The Eye of the Beholder by Margie Orford

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The Eye of the Beholder by Margie Orford front cover

Throughout her career, South African crime author and journalist Margie Orford has dealt extensively with the way trauma manifests itself in countries with a turbulent political history such as South Africa and Namibia. She’s particularly interested in how it permeates the social structure, often culminating in violence against women. In her first crime fiction novel since 2013’s Water Music, the author returns to the topic and The Eye of the Beholder tells the tale of several women whose stories are connected by psychological and physical abuse over several decades.

Our first introduction to Cora Berger is her fleeing a cabin in a snow-covered Canadian landscape. We don’t know who or what she’s running from, but there is a clear sense of danger and fear. In her attempt to get away she leaves an injured dog next to the road. The wolf-husky mix is spotted by a passerby and taken to the nearby wolf sanctuary where Angel Lamar recognises it a dog belonging to Yves Fournier, a local art dealer. Fournier has been helping Angel research wolves in the area. But there’s another reason why Angel wants to be close to Fournier, which is gradually revealed in the pages that follow.

When Angel returns the dog to Fournier he is nowhere in sight. Evidently he set off on a skiing trip and hasn’t been seen or heard from since. A search team is dispersed but Angel suspects that Fournier had a female visitor who might have something to do with his disappearance.

Then the story jumps back in time and to Scotland where we find out how Cora met Fournier. This in turn leaves us with the breadcrumbs leading to her escape from his cabin. Fournier’s influence in the art world opens opportunities for Cora, who also happens to be an artist. With his charm and persuasive powers he manipulates and traps her in a highly dysfunctional, co-dependent relationship. Cora falls for Fournier’s persistent advances despite warning signs of potential violent and possessive behaviour.

However, Cora herself comes across as selfish and egotistical. Over the years she has often abandoned Freya, her daughter, and her husband, Leo, on a whim. Freya has grown accustomed to her mother’s behaviour and the psychological effects of her absence play out in Freya’s narrative. To explore her feelings about her mother, Freya’s therapist suggests she looks at Cora’s artwork which in turn points back to Cora’s childhood. As she fills in the gaps in her mother’s history, Freya discovers a secret Cora has kept hidden for decades.

It’s here that Orford takes us back to South Africa in the 1970s. Following her parents’ death, Cora sold their farm and left the country with a portfolio of paintings and letter of introduction to London gallery owner, Lucian Villiers. Despite leaving her birth country behind, it remains present in her work as a way to exorcise the demons from her past.

Angel is also trying to escape her past which includes a criminal record. After the suspicious death of her mother, who she adored, Angel ends up in a futile situation where she is abused by an adult who should have protected her. The only way to process her harrowing past is to deal with those who played a role in her abuse.

There is much more to untangle in The Eye of the Beholder than the disappearance of Yves Fournier. Orford is adept at creating clever, gratifying twists and converging threads into a satisfying conclusion. She also excels at suffusing her plot with tension and unease. This can be partly attributed to her writing style, but more so to the themes she covers – dysfunctional, abusive relationships and their destructive consequences, as well as the ever present power of the male gaze.

The book’s setting and atmosphere might be slightly different than the author’s Clare Hart crime novels, but the same social issues are at its core: toxic masculinity and gender-based crime. Through Cora and Angel’s voices we are reminded that those who hurt women are often those closest to them – the people they trust. This is a universal story which will appeal to readers who enjoy a gripping tale with a strong social undercurrent.

Domestic abuse is treated from a different angle in Cold as Hell by Lilja Sigurdardottir.

Canongate Books

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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