APPLE TREE YARD
Author: Louise Doughty
Faber RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
I enjoy psychological thrillers, even if they do give me the shivers at times, so I was really looking forward to Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty. I’ve read an earlier book, Whatever You Love, by Doughty and enjoyed that, so I was surprised that it took me a while to become really absorbed by Doughty’s latest release. The dry, almost detached, narrative held me at a distance and then reached out and pulled me in just in time, but ever-so-subtly, teasing me into a desire to know what really happened. Cleverly done.
Yvonne, 52, is a renowned geneticist, whose working life is all about rationality. One day, after giving evidence to a Select Committee at the Houses of Parliament, she meets a man (known for much of the book as X) and has sex with him in the secluded Chapel in the Crypt beneath the Great Hall of Westminster. This reckless, irrational behaviour is uncharacteristic of Yvonne, who has been married for years and has never strayed during that relationship. That night, she writes a letter to X, secretes it on her computer and carries on with life as normal, until she meets X again. What follows is a reckless affair, marked by risky sex and led by X, that draws Yvonne in, placing her at great odds with her professional and home life. It’s as if she is a different person altogether with X; he says ‘jump’ and she responds, ‘how high?’ Ultimately, the rash choice that started the relationship ends with the pair on trial for murder, their sordid affair in the spotlight held up for all to see. So too, is X – he is not the man Yvonne thought he was.
Apple Tree Yard is part courtroom drama, part psychological thriller. The novel starts in the courtroom, revealing to the reader from the outset that Yvonne is on trial for a terrible crime, and then tracing the story of her affair with X, its consequences, her struggle to cope with painful secrets and the choices she’s made, and back to the courtroom, where others will decide her fate. It examines themes of morality (is personal morality the same for everyone) and values, and choice, consequences and individual responsibility, as well as gender issues, self-belief and the image/mask presented to others, and relationships. It’s a dry read, more on the literary side, and I do feel that some readers will expect more feeling; while I would prefer that generally, the writing style complemented Yvonne as a scientist – her retelling is almost clinical – and X as a lover who is sexually present, but not emotionally. It also aptly reflects her detachment from her marriage, almost as if she has to do that in order to get through the court case and come to terms with her choices and their outcomes.
Choice. In describing this book, many readers and even the publishers trace the events to one choice Yvonne made – to have sex with X. Although I mentioned a rash choice that led to a murder trial, I see it more as a series of choices (not all hers) rather than believing everything happened because of that one choice. At each step, there could have been different outcomes; responsibility has to be taken for each choice made. Yvonne could have chosen not to write about X, to talk to her husband, not to take a secret mobile phone from X … and more. Just an observation, I made. Also, unlike some readers, who have described the affair as “passionate” on Goodreads, I didn’t really get a sense of passion, more of lust. Are they the same thing? To me, passion connotes emotion as well. I just didn’t feel that passion came into the equation with Yvonne and X; it felt empty, like something was missing, and that feeling stayed with me all through. Part of this could also be attributed to the fact that Yvonne is not a warm, immediately likable character … but perhaps she doesn’t want readers to like her. Perhaps her self-worth (or lack of) is filtering through to the reader through her connection with them as much as her actions. Nor is she the most reliable of narrators – she presents a careful construct of herself (don’t we all) that masks the instability and fears in her life.
Apple Tree Yard is a clever, subtle book, driven by what motivates the characters; the tension is created by these motivations, rather than fast-paced action scenes. It’s different, it’s sinister and the ending will make you rethink all the motivations you thought you had worked out.
Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.
Bookish treat: A good bowl of home-made chicken soup to warm the soul.