Book Review: Louise Doughty’s ‘Apple Tree Yard’ (Faber and Faber)

Reluctant to take a hard back on holiday my lovely local book shop (Atkinson & Pryce, Biggar ) gave me their publisher’s draft of Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard (out last week – Faber& Faber).

I’d listened to the presenter and social commentator, Mariella Frostrup, discussing it with the author on Mariella’s Radio 4 show, ‘Open Book’ on the 16th June. It can be a too cosy experience – that show – but the book sounded interesting.

I took the plain red-bound book home – impressed by its remarkable flat matt redness.

And because of a slow weekend of home-aloneness (this is the time for end-of-term parties and retirement do’s) and holiday-packing-for-all (my control freakery frightens me at holiday time – I hate it and promise this is the last time I am going to give a shit about the contents of other people’s cases), I opened the flimsy cover and started to read.

It’s finished now.

And it is a truthful hard bastard of a book.

It should be required reading.

If you want to read the novel and don’t want to know what happened, please don’t read on…Just Go Buy The Book!!

For this is a book about the violence done to women in the name of patriarchy – violence that starts with the new-born’s inculcation into a society that limits the roles that are open or to be viewed as acceptable both for and to women, culminating in rape and a trial that imposes the social ‘moral strait-jacket’ into which a ‘good’ ‘deserving’ woman must fit if she is to be believed.

Doughty’s novel is timely. Coming when the political discourse is about what constitutes ‘real rape’ (Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke – and his comments regarding ‘serious rape’ May 2011?); ‘domestic violence’ and what it means to be abused by your partner (Nigella Lawson and the very public assault upon her by her husband Saatchi?) and when budget cuts ensure that women suffer most, it is right that we should be reminded of the social powerlessness of the female. And then feel anger.

Opening with minutely described scene which places the main character, Yvonne Carmichael, in the Old Bailey where she is on trial for an as yet undisclosed crime, the novel nails to perfection the courtroom and its players – and reveals just enough to ensure that we want to know what has brought this clever powerful woman to this place.

Yvonne is a geneticist who has reached the top of her profession. She is an influential, respected and admired academic. She was married immediately after her first degree to fellow scientist, Guy and they have two grown-up children, Adam and Sarah. Sarah is an academic scientist (though in a different field) and Adam is a struggling musician, a drifter who was diagnosed many years ago with bipolar disorder. We learn that Guy has had an affair with a younger PhD student, Rosa but that Yvonne and he remain together in their sexless (not loveless) marriage. Yvonne suffers guilt over Adam’s illness – displayed in her over-readiness to weaken suggestions of a genetic connection with her own Mother’s depressions and eventual suicide.

Yvonne is 51 years and ‘small and cute’. She takes pleasure in her appearance. She is physically attractive but not flamboyant. Her approach to living is methodical and rational. She prides herself on being ‘scientific’. Her life has been ‘safe’. Characterised by safe choices. By socially acceptable choices.

And yet one day, whilst attending as an expert witness for a Parliamentary Committee, she meets a Parliamentary employee – a stranger with whom she forms an immediate and overwhelming intimacy – and they have sex in the Crypt Chapel. Sex which is ‘like being devoured by a wolf’.

They begin a ‘relationship’. They engage in high-risk public sex acts and she is obsessed by him. Her rational scientific mind struggles to understand precisely what is happening to her and why she should be behaving in this way. She just knows she wants him. And he wants her.

Yet she knows nothing about him. Not even his name.

A few weeks into the ‘relationship’ with the stranger she attends a Faculty party. She drinks too much and ends up drunk. A colleague, George Craddock, offers to help her. Alarm bells begin to sound for the reader when he makes several aggressive remarks about ‘a woman like you’. He leads her to his office where he slaps her, terrifies her, rapes her, forces her to fellate him and sodomises her. She suffers light external but deep internal bruising, an anal tear. He then shares her taxi home behaving as though what has happened was consensual and leaving less than half of the fare – on the basis that his part of the journey was shorter.

The scene is nasty, brutal, evil. George states several times that he thinks this is what she’ll ‘like’.

The court scene is the endgame for this brutal assault. It is where it all finally plays out. All the strands coming together.

I found the read painful but compelling. There is just too much truth. I recognise too much – Yvonne Carmichael is everywoman.

Because fundamentally, women are ‘understood’ and valued through their physical currency. The female body is evaluated and it is taken for granted that it is a body that’s forever available to the men who are doing the measuring.

From the very young male students who weigh and measure Yvonne’s physical appearance and who presume sex; to the husband who shags his student – women’s sexuality, a woman’s life, is seen as something that is to be subordinated to the male need.

It’s said as an aside – but despite Guy and Yvonne planning their children to ensure that both their PhDs would be finished just before the children get to school, Guy’s is in fact finished in 3 years and Yvonne’s takes 7 years. A woman’s professional life is subordinated to her husband and her childrens’ needs. A woman’s life is not her own.

The scene with the policeman who talks through the rape and possible options is a harrowing reminder of how the system (both social and court) works against the rape victim:

‘Well, injuries don’t mean anything unless there’s a record of them anyway.’ Kevin says. ‘Unless you’ve been examined by a professional and they are recorded. And even then when we have injuries, if the man claims it was consensual S&M, it’s quite hard to prove otherwise.’

‘But if he had beaten me to a pulp, then we would be in with a chance?’

Kevin takes the question seriously. ‘Yes, but the fact that you were drunk would still count against you. Alcohol is a gift to the offence.’

I don’t reply. I want Kevin to continue – I need to hear this, all of it.

Kevin takes a deep breath, leans forward in his seat. ‘The first thing his solicitor will do, as soon as he’s charged, will be to hire a private detective. Any secrets in your past? I keep my gaze on Kevin. I do not look at you. He continues. ‘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, all your old boyfriends. They will be looking for anyone who says you like being hit or you like it rough. Any sex videos, topless photos, that kind of thing.’

This is a book that our mothers and daughters must read. More effective than any Friedan or Dworkin or Hanisch or…

I saw this, this week. Seems appropriate.

A woman is someone‘s 
Mother, daughter, wife….


Selling a Family Friend

I watched him, obscured by window-ledge greenery, circling the old Mitsubishi Space wagon. Mobile in hand, his mouth-corner nipping a fag.

He’d brought a mechanic with him – introduced as ‘my nephew – he helps me a bit’. Nephew had opened a tool box and was crouching. He’d spotted the mild sump leak.

I gave them the keys and they fired her up.
I wanted a £1250 for a quick sale. Book price for mint condition was £2400. She wasn’t mint. But she wasn’t bad. 98000 miles; full service history; manufacturer-guaranteed repairs; clean body; one careful lady driver from new.
Fag-man pressed on the accelerator and the old faithful spat and puttered a bit – betraying that tiny cylinder misfire she’d developed at 2yrs. An imperfection that only made her more perfect to us.
She’s not been started for days now. That wee cough’s to be expected cos I’ve not had her out.
‘Nephew’ lifted the lid and began scribbling on his pad. Listing repairs that would need doing. Every syllable another hundred off the price.
He flicked his roll-up into touch and we were off. The sump needed replacing. That’d be £150 at least. Timing belt? Probably another £250. That cylinder misfire wasn’t clever. New cylinder head -even a scrappie one would cost. And he sucked whistling air sharp between nicotined teeth. Rolled his eyes. 
Not sure this is worth ma time. Another pause. Another teeth sucking. £450 Mrs. That’d be my best offer.

I laughed. 
Nae deal then. I need more than £450. And you know she’s worth a helluva lot more than £450. 

He rocked on old black trainers.
Ok Mrs. He glanced at nephew. £550. Final offer. You’ll not get better than that.

I looked at the old girl. The worn grey upholstery exhaling the smell of us. A thousand family trips. An interior grubby with dripped ice-cream; spilled pee-pots; soured milk and feet-scuffings. And I was overwhelmed by the desire to protect and keep her.
Sorry. I can’t afford to sell at anything less than £950.

That was a lie. The new car was bought. Would be delivered on Monday.
I’m sorry I’ve wasted your time.

My face was closed to him now. 
Would you take £750?

I shook my head. Hard-eyed.
A new silence fell. There was no fresh offer. Nephew closed up his toolbox. Uncle pressed Golden Virginia into fag papers and rolled as they walked to their old truck.
I turned to the door. Ana had been watching it all.
Do we really need to sell our car Mum?

I nodded. She patted my arm with her 7 yr old hand , comfortingly.
Don’t worry Mum. We’ll find a good family for her.

A week later, new car ensconced firmly in fickle hearts, I posted a reduced price for a quick sale. I flagged the need for a new oil sump. The harmless cylinder misfire. The timing belt change required in 20k miles.
She sold for £550.

The Kingdom…

Julia’s Eatery – Crail

Ana and I climbed into the car at 10am this morning headed for the Kingdom of Fife – the East Neuk and St Andrews.

We left a climbing sun, drove through threatening greyness and arrived in a quiet midday Crail. Ana – predictably – was starving so ‘Julia’s Eatery’ on High Street was a handy first stop.

We shared the space with a brand new Gran and Granpa – full of the joys and excitement of their wee grandson who was gurrying on hard melon slices and being high-fived for every happy wee noise. I remembered my own happy chiels – and then smiled inwardly when the wee lad ran out of happy patience and demanded to be lifted out of his highchair – stirring my own memories of lunches broken by girning and crying; at snatched bites to eat gulped mid-baby-nap and of indigestion…

He was fascinated by Ana for a while – long enough to let Granny finish her coffee and cake…

When they left, Ana and I finished our own food and discussed what we would do next. The rock pools won and I moved the car out to Roome Bay.

The sun was beginning to cut through the haar as we descended onto the pebble beach. Ana collected pebbles and shells and scooped whelks and tiny crabs from the pools. I sat, quietly watching, memories washing in, relentless as the tide.

My brother and I spent every summer running to Roome Bay. Our jelly sandals nipping our feet. Our buckets and spades flying out behind us as we pretended to be planes, scattering swallows in the tree-lined football field with our clatter – stopping to scoop up water from the burn that ran through the ancient old graveyard with its skulls and crossbone stones and cross-armed knights.

Later I lay with the too-beautiful Iain in the grass in the hollow of the glen that hugged the far reach of the  graveyard. Never-minding the dead who lay only feet below us -as they were oblivious to our sex.

I worked in the hotel at the Links. Laughed and flirted and got drunk on attention, on Guinness and on the closeness of that tight community of fisher folk and oil men and farmers. And I learned how to drive – illegally, without bothering any driving school or government test centre.

As Ana picked over pebbles I saw, just behind her, the deepest curve of the bay and remembered the oil-drum campfire parties that stretched into the early hours and smiled and she asked what I was laughing at.

She came bearing the special stones she’d selected for painting. We sat on the rocks and felt the sun prickle our skin. Inhaled the brine and the heady stench of drying seaweed.

We needed this trip out.

Ana picking her way over rocks – Crail – Roome Bay 

It’s not been an easy week.

Dad’s diagnosis on Monday was grim. Advanced localised(?) (the question mark is the medic’s) prostate cancer. He’s gone from largely symptom-less, the man whom the doctor thought was benignly, mildly enlarged to the focal point of radiotherapy plans and bone scans. And he’s been transformed from robust, solidly dependable and taken-for-granted ‘Dad’ to a patient sitting in the limbo-land between MRI and CT scanner waiting rooms. Looking and sounding haunted. Losing substance.

And as he falters and falls and we fail to catch him, this time, because it is not what we prepared for, there have been so many memories bubbling to the surface. Salted by tears that come in solitary moments.

So it’s my need, just now, to capture and hug the past close. Testing the bounds of what can be remembered. Fearing the loss of memories; the fragility and subjectivity of recollection. For if I can’t remember, then what will it all have been for? All the living and striving and being and  breathing. The shouting and laughing and fighting and loving.

Stones for painting 

It’s just the natural way of things. We are born. We die. I know this.

Why this hellish emptiness then? The feeling that I – we – know nothing; have built our understanding on shifting sands.

Dad’s catchphrase ‘we all need to die and die of something’ sounds out a callow note, its trite truth mocking us. Oh yes, we heard the words. But did not stop to think how we’d really feel when death and loss came to the door.

And because we didn’t, we wasted too many minutes and hours and days sweating the shit that really didn’t matter.

 Days on the beach matter.

Wee trips out in the car matter.

Dad doesn’t want to miss his month in Spain. He wants to visit Granada and the Alhambra. His doctor says ‘Go. Enjoy. Come back relaxed and prepared.’

Last year Mum journeyed to Spain for the month – delaying her own cancer treatment. I struggled then, to understand why she’d chosen holiday over medical interventions.

I don’t struggle with that decision anymore.