Jo Baker’s last two impressive novels stemmed from literary sources. “Longbourn” (2013) saw the English author tapping into the trend of updating or repurposing the work of Jane Austen, but opening up a fresh new front by reimagining “Pride and Prejudice” from the viewpoint of the servants in the Bennet household. In “A Country Road, a Tree” (2016) she channeled the singular mind of Samuel Beckett during his time in Nazi-occupied France.
Baker’s seventh novel, “The Body Lies,” is more literary-themed than literary-sourced. On this occasion she turns from past masters and masterpieces and instead devises an ingenious and electrifying setup that explores the boundary between fact and fiction.
The book’s nameless narrator is a young writer with one unremarkable novel under her belt. Emotionally scarred by a violent assault, she agrees to a long-distance relationship with her husband and escapes London with her son for the safety and solitude of the remote, rural north. There she takes up a position at a university as a professor of creative writing. After some initial doubt about her aptitude for the job (“It felt rather like asking someone who’d once crash-landed a light aircraft to train people as commercial airline pilots”), she throws herself into her work.
One student in her class stands out: Nicholas, who tells his teacher that the radical fiction he is writing describes real events in his life. The raw, edgy and intense material he submits deals with a dysfunctional family, drink and drugs, and a lost girl, which leads the woman to surmise that he is writing to confront his demons: “To sound out the depths, to map this darkness.”
She is fascinated by him — “By the tangle that he was” — until one drunken night his desperate actions expose a dangerous side to him. Soon afterward he goes missing but continues to send her his writing — which now features her as his main character heading toward a grim conclusion.
Baker may deny her narrator a name, but she ensures she is so well delineated in every other respect as to be believable and sympathetic. First she is overburdened; then, when Nicholas veers from volatile to violent, she is overwhelmed. We assume she will adopt her usual disaster-management strategy and walk away. But as her world caves in she decides to pick up the pieces and fight back.
What begins as an engaging tale about a new start in a new environment among budding new writers ramifies into a gripping psychological thriller that combines fiendish mind games and riveting drama with a timely examination of male entitlement and female struggle.
“I was done with the truth and all its lies,” our heroine says at one point. “I wanted fiction, I wanted to be beguiled, to be transported.” Baker’s novel does just that: beguiling us, transporting us and terrifying us for good measure.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Body Lies
By: Jo Baker.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 274 pages, $25.95.