Source: Review copy
Publication: 13 June 2019 from Doubleday
When a young writer accepts a job at a university in the remote countryside, it’s meant to be a fresh start, away from the big city and the scene of a violent assault she’s desperate to forget. But when one of her students starts sending in chapters from his novel that blur the lines between fiction and reality, the professor recognises herself as the main character in his book – and he has written her a horrific fate.
Will she be able to stop life imitating art before it’s too late?
At once a breathless battle-of-wits and a disarming exploration of sexual politics, The Body Lies is an essential book for our times.
Well, this book packs a serious punch, that’s for sure. I was transfixed by the plight of the unnamed female protagonist who is a bright academic with one published book to her credit, and a young mother. Following a violent sexual assault in the street, she no longer feels safe in her London home and has been looking for jobs elsewhere when she is offered a job at a Northern University, lecturing in creative writing.
Her husband Mark, who knows how she has been feeling all this time, decides he can’t leave his school teaching job (and honestly doesn’t really understand why she can’t just ‘move past it’) and so they arrive at an arrangement whereby she will go North and they will see each other at weekends and during holidays.
When she arrives, everything is a bit chaotic and she not only has nothing in the way of induction, but she learns pretty quickly that she *is* the creative writing department. Not only that, but the Head of Department, a man whose sense of personal space is somewhat diminished, recognises her for a newbie and does what so many male managers do, heaps a ton more work upon her, taking advantage of her new status and her inexperience and frankly, the fact that she is too nice to say no. In short, he dumps on her because she is a woman.
She and her young son, Sammy, move into a rented cottage in rural isolation; her nearest neighbours are on a working farm. It takes a while for her to settle in. The complete darkness at night, the rural noises, everything combines to put her spidey senses on edge.
Her days become a whirlwind of work. Unused to having students she pores over her preparation feeling, as many women would, that perhaps with only one book behind her, she is not worthy to hold down a creative writing job.
This is all depicted in a quiet, unassuming way. The picture builds slowly and I recognised these traits rather than have them thrust upon me.
She is now teaching undergraduates but it is her MA Creative writing students who offer the real challenge. Each is working on their own book and there’s a lot to be interested in.
Written in the third person, Jo Baker’s narrative looks carefully at the question of how much control women really have over their own lives when under threat, and what it means to fight back. Using the device of the students stories, our protagonist finds herself drawn into a dark divide.
The students begin to squabble bitterly amongst themselves; then become jealous of their teacher’s focus of attention. One student, Nicholas, claims to be telling his truth, and only his truth through his fiction, which is dark and disturbing. He derides the others’ work and stirs up a debate about the treatment of women and women’s bodies.
Nicholas insists that a trigger warning should be used for some fiction and in so doing he is using his own force of personality to undermine his teacher and to set the ground rules for their interactions. Nicholas is pushing boundaries and this isn’t having a productive effect on anyone, and the balance of power is shifting away from our protagonist. That balance shifts even further when she realises that Nicholas is now writing about her.
Baker’s riveting, clever account of the sexual power politics involved is utterly mesmerising. As things spiral out of control in the midst of a welter of satirical and all too believable attempts to accommodate Nicholas’ s requests, we realise that there is a dark force at work here that is all about power and the way it is wielded.
The debate about fictional violence against women serves to more strongly highlight the sheer horror of the very real sexual violence that occurs; a sexual violence that our unnamed protagonist feels she cannot fight. Ultimately, she becomes as powerless as Nicholas conceives her to be in his writing. Until she decides to fight back….
Verdict: The Body Lies is a really strong piece of writing. It is clever, it is and it works its way into your consciousness like a worm insinuating itself into the brain. It’s a damned good literary thriller, but more importantly it is a brilliant look at how power works in sexual politics.
Jo Baker is the author of the acclaimed and bestselling LONGBOURN and A COUNTRY ROAD, A TREE. Her new novel, THE BODY LIES, is a thrilling contemporary novel that explores violence against women in fiction but is also a disarming story of sexual politics. Jo Baker lives with her family in Lancashire.