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 http://www.atkinson-pryce.co.uk ) 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….