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Friday, September 4, 2015

Birthday Review - "Apple Tree Yard" by Louise Doughty


   4 Stars

Today is Louise Doughty’s 52nd birthday; in her honour, I’m posting my review of her latest book, Apple Tree Yard.


Dr. Yvonne Carmichael, a middle-aged geneticist, someone with “status and gravitas,” finds herself accused of murder; her co-accused is a man with whom she had a torrid affair. She narrates much of the story in flashbacks detailing the events that bring her to a dock in Old Bailey.

Information is parceled out slowly. The identity of the murder victim isn’t known until midway through the novel. Even the lover’s name is not revealed until two-thirds of the way through the book; Yvonne addresses her lover throughout, but only as “you” or “X.” This technique of withholding information certainly adds to the suspense. And although there is a prologue that hints at the verdict, suspense during the trial is maintained.

This book would probably be classified as a psychological thriller/courtroom drama, but it has more serious elements. It is really a novel about “the stories we tell in order to make sense of ourselves.” In the end, Yvonne’s lover is described as “a fantasist, a person who could only manage his normal life as long as it was propped up by a series of self-flattering tales” but throughout the reader notices that his identity is shaped by what she wants to believe about him rather than what she actually knows about him. Yvonne claims to be self-aware (“Self-awareness: it is one of the chief bonuses of advancing age.”), but the reader cannot help but wonder whether she really knows herself. Is she perhaps deceiving herself about herself as well as about others?

The problem is complicated when someone else is involved: “Relationships are about stories, not truth. . . . the minute you enter an intimate relationship with another person there is an automatic dissonance between your story about yourself, and their story about you.” During the court case, Yvonne also comes to understand that a series of facts can be arranged in a variety of ways: she sees lawyers manipulating the jury through “the misplacement of evidence from context” so they will interpret events in a certain way. She also realizes that “as a scientist, I have told more stories than I ever realized, or admitted to”: “I know how the whole point of presenting a new theory is to anticipate the counter-citations from those who will disagree with you and to have, up your sleeve, a list of counter-counter-citations.”

The novel also examines the treatment of women who are victims of sexual assault. Any woman charging someone with sexual assault must be prepared to have all secrets revealed by the defense attorneys: “’Internet searches, questioning friends and family and work colleagues, starts with that. If there’s nothing in your present life, they will get to work on your past, starting with tracking down your sexual history . . . They can do anything. If they are challenged, all they have to do is give a reason to the judge why it’s relevant to the defence.’”

I would definitely recommend this book. It is a compelling read with a great deal of suspense, and a chilling read because it emphasizes the consequences of choices and reminds us of the human tendency to deceive ourselves about ourselves and others. Yvonne may not be a totally reliable narrator, but how many of us are really reliable narrators of our own “personal mythologies.”