Megan Abbott is an author we crime fiction lovers love to love. She made her name writing noir-ish novels set in the 1950s, from a female perspective. She has co-written graphic novels such as Normandy Gold. Some of her more recent psychological thrillers have explored the dark things that can happen when young women compete with one another, from Dare Me and The Fever through to The Turnout.
Beware the Woman is something different. More feminist at its core, it has a powerful story that combines the atmosphere of gothic classics like Rebecca and Jane Eyre with a gradually building commentary on how women are often treated in contemporary America. Megan Abbott is also an academic with a PhD in English and American literature and you might be pleased to discover that Beware the Woman is rich in literary references.
Jacy and her husband Jed are newly married and she’s already pregnant. Her mother says she hardly knows the man and Jacy concedes that this isn’t too far from the truth. They’re driving from New York to his father’s house in northern Michigan, a part of the country settled by Cornish miners who came for the copper. Remnants of Cornish culture – including pasties – surface here and there, and reinforce some of the book’s parallels with Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. The passion that connects Jacy and Jed is evident, but soon we see that there are things she doesn’t know about his background and personality.
Reticent, quiet, a little moody, Jed is an artisan who makes old fashioned neon signs by hand. It’s what makes him interesting but he’s nothing like his warm, articulate father, whose name is Hank but who is called Dr Ash throughout the novel. Immediately, Dr Ash charms Jacy with his welcoming smile, old fashioned manners and occasional winks and jokes that make her feel close to him. Dr Ash’s housekeeper, Mrs Brandt, hovers in the background. She seems a stern observer. Is she judging Jacy, comparing her to Jed’s deceased mother, perhaps?
The 4th of July holiday is coming, and Dr Ash’s house is miles from anywhere, surrounded by woods. To add to the foreboding, and perhaps harking to the Beast of Bodmin, a mountain lion has been lurking the perimeter of the homestead. Although the species is thought to be extinct in the area, the forest ranger Hicks warns that if Jacy sees the cubs it’s already too late – the mother’s instinct will be to kill. Something out there is haunting them, whatever the case.
What starts off to be a disconcerting story turns outright nerve-racking when Jacy’s pregnancy hits complications. She finds blood, and is examined by the local doctor, a friend of Dr Ash, who himself no longer practises. Jacy has a displaced placenta, which isn’t too severe but will limit her activities over the holidays. What worries her just as much is that Dr Ash, the local doctor and Jed begin discussing her health in her absence. They become evasive and secretive, Dr Ash grows increasingly overbearing and Jed seems too weak to stand up to his father.
Jacy is on her own, being fed pills and told to rest, while Jed goes out drinking with his old buddies.
Then she finds out that Jed’s mother died in childbirth in this very house. The details are shrouded in secrecy, but whatever happened casts a dark shadow over this story and its characters. Mrs Brandt knows something, Dr Ash knows something, there seems to be a weird connection between them, but Jacy can’t get any proper information out of Jed who has become an opaque member of the cast. There’s some anger in him too, but where did that come from? Jacy, who has secrets of her own, is desperate to leave and begins planning her escape.
Megan Abbott uses all sorts of angles and creepy details to keep you engaged with the story. Some of Jacy’s commentary leads you to think she’s an unreliable narrator, governed by her hormones and the strange desires of pregnancy. For example, she hears her mother’s voice in her head, criticising her and outlining the ways men will let her down. And Jacy does make some big assumptions about those around her.
However, is she mistaken in believing that Dr Ash is taking control of the situation? We only have her word for it that his friendly tones are becoming strained, but his responses to certain situations – his actions themselves – do become rather odd. There’s tension between them and our desire grows for Jacy to get the hell out of there and protect her baby. She’s on a collision course with those who want to prevent that, and she could lose everything – her husband, her child and maybe even her life.
Beware the Woman is prescient at a time when American conservatives are attempting to take bodily autonomy away from women. It’s a book that explores where these attitudes come from, what they rest upon, the kind of thinking that preserves male dominance. It cracks that value system and exposes the anger and insecurity that drive the need to control women. More than that, it’s a very well-told story – highly contemporary, but with the zing of classical elements, a gloomy gothic ambience, a terrifying beast waiting out there in the dark and another one back in the house.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars