A Lesson in Cruelty by Harriet Tyce

3 Mins read
A Lesson in Cruelty by Harriet Tyce front cover

Harriet Tyce is an author that’s new to me, but there had been quite a buzz about this book and it made the CFL list of Most Wanted Books for 2024 so I had high hopes. After bursting into the scene with her best-selling debut Blood Orange, Tyce has built up a reputation for unpredictable psychological thrillers.

Three women with three distinctly separate stories populate the pages of a Lesson in Cruelty and as if to underline that separateness, Tyce structures the story into three solid blocks – no interweaving or swapping perspectives here, instead there seems no connection whatsoever between the trio. Until there is… but more of that later.

Things start off well, with Anna about to be released from prison after serving three years for drink driving. She is moved out of the main block and into a cell by herself in preparation for her release in the morning – but during the night Anna’s solitude is shattered with the arrival of a young woman who is starting her sentence.

Anna goes back to sleep but in the morning awakens to a nightmare. The new inmate has committed suicide, and Anna is found, literally red-handed, standing over the body after checking for signs of life. She’s detained and questioned by police before eventually being released. But it’s late in the day, she has little money, and while she waits for the bus she is almost killed by a hit and run driver. This woman was obviously born under a bad sign.

To Anna’s rescue comes Tom, the duty solicitor who was drafted in to help her that afternoon. He offers her a bed for the night and rings her probation officer to rearrange her appointment for tomorrow. But Anna is wary, and even after she has shared her story with Tom and he offers her some work in his office, she doesn’t want to trust him. But actually, Tom is a good guy, and Anna’s bad luck is destined to rub off on him too.

And… switch stories. Now we meet Lucy, an Oxford law student with an agenda all her own. She is on a Masters course with the express intention of meeting and seducing her professor though why she would want to target such an odious man is anyone’s guess. The ploy begins to work, and Edgar asks Lucy to do background work for him on his various papers and talks about prison reform. She is keen to help, and it looks like her ultimate goal is in sight when he invites her to attend a conference with him. There they meet Victor, and that’s when Lucy’s plan begins to unravel and she starts to see Edgar for the man he really is.

Story three is in sight, so let’s meet Marie, who is living off grid on a remote Scottish island with another older woman, called Janice. Their home is dotted with CCTV cameras, they get weekly shopping deliveries brought across by boat, sent be an unknown benefactor, and they appear to be at the beck and call of some nameless, faceless watcher; someone who one week sends multiple bottles of whisky in the weekly shop – much to recovering alcoholic Janice’s delight. Other weeks sends barely enough food for the women to survive. Then Janice dies after a drinking binge and Marie sees a chance to escape.

By the time these three disparate plot lines finally converge we are two-thirds of the way through the book, and suddenly the writing shifts up a gear, hurrying to weave things together and marry up loose ends. It’s a frustrating and dislocating way of doing things, and Tyce wanders into the realms of unlikelihood and silly coincidence as she endeavours to create a satisfactory denouement, and all but fails.

This author has a neat way of creating characters, most of them distinctly unlikeable – although I did warm to poor Anna. However this book’s structure makes it hard to keep tabs on them all, and when the separate stories begin to entwine it’s a struggle to recall where things had been left when you last saw them. The final 100 or so pages feel rushed and ultimately disappointing, with some of the loose ends that seem important early on suddenly dismissed in a couple of lines. Normally I enjoy a twisty psychological thriller, but sadly this one was a step too far.


CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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