By Maggie James
High suspense meets the legal thriller
'Apple Tree Yard' is a superb novel, where high suspense meets the legal thriller and combines them into an excellent read. Here's the summary from the back cover:
'Yvonne Carmichael has a high-flying career, a beautiful home and a good marriage.
But when she meets a stranger she is drawn into a passionate affair.
Keeping the two halves of her life separate seems easy at first.
But she can't control what happens next.'
The novel is written in the first person, present tense, which I find always adds a certain punch to the prose. Doughty presents the story through an internal conversation between Yvonne and her unknown lover, who she believes to be a government spook unable to reveal details of his work. Although an intelligent woman, a respected scientist and married, she’s naive around this man, believing herself in love. The thrill of this illicit relationship, combined with risky sex, whisks her away from a life that’s become predictable and dull towards events that almost destroy her.
Excellent courtroom drama
It quickly becomes obvious to the reader that Yvonne's mystery lover doesn't reciprocate her feelings to the same extent. Yvonne rationalises his behaviour by believing wholeheartedly in his alleged covert occupation, and excuses his inattentiveness by the fact he's married. Her lover is a fantasist, but then so is she to a large extent. Even at the end of the novel, she’s still partly deluded, calling him ‘my love’ and wondering if they’ll meet again.
The courtroom scenes at The Old Bailey are excellent, the tense back and forth between the lawyers and witnesses really ratcheting up the tension. The reader already knows from the terse prologue that Yvonne cracks under pressure whilst on the stand. How, the reader asks, has a woman who has so much going for here arrived at such a low point?
Genetics versus gender issues...
Here comes the science bit! Louise Doughty weaves elements of genetics into the novel, playing on the fact that her protagonist is a geneticist. Yvonne refers to her unnamed lover as X, focusing on how they've reversed roles, he being an X and she a Y. Furthermore, her family have names or nicknames that begin with the letters A T G & C, another nod towards the field of genetics in which she works.
Doughty also examines issues of women's place in society. Yvonne has struggled to balance her career with motherhood, reflecting with some resentment how her husband's role in child-rearing appears to be an opt-in one, whereas hers has defaulted to an opt-out one. Although her marriage is good, the cracks exist, fissures that eventually lead to her susceptibility to a passionate affair with a stranger.
Wrong place, wrong time, wrong man
Louise Doughty also touches on the vulnerability of women. Yvonne is a woman who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong man, and the results are catastrophic for all concerned. Women can have careers, children, successful marriages, and yet they are ultimately vulnerable to overheated testosterone, and it can be the seemingly nice guy next door who poses the danger.
Moving on from this, Doughty looks at how the legal system can be skewed against women, illustrating her point by citing the case of a fifteen-year-old girl, not very bright, who suffers a gang rape by five men. She then has to face not one but five defence lawyers, all insinuating she was a drunken slut who asked for what she got. If a highly intelligent woman like Yvonne Carmichael can be broken in the witness box, what chance do any of us have?
Self-preservation versus a loved one...
Doughty examines the question of how far each of us would go to protect a loved one, or whether self-preservation will always win out in the end. She cites some distinctly unpleasant animal experiments that demonstrate that even maternal love can't compete with the innate urge in all of us to save our own skins if push comes to shove. Altruism will only stretch so far,a principle that will eventually lead to Yvonne's meltdown on the witness stand.
George Orwell examines the same topic in his novel '1984'. The way Yvonne's lover behaves is no different to the way Winston Smith eventually breaks down in front of his tormentor O'Brien. In screaming the words 'Do it to Julia! Do it to her, not me!', he cements his own brainwashing. The ultimate betrayal. So too with Yvonne's mystery lover, as he turns traitor on her in court, leaving her vulnerable to a sharp defence lawyer as the truth about Apple Tree Yard is revealed.
More about Louise Doughty
Louise Doughty is the author of seven novels, including 'Apple Tree Yard'. Her novels have been shortlisted for various awards and she has also won awards for her radio drama and short stories. She is a critic and cultural commentator for UK and international newspapers and broadcasts regularly for the BBC.
In 2007, she published her first work of non-fiction, 'A Novel in a Year', based on her newspaper column of the same name. She has written major features, columns and cover articles for a wide variety of newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Mail on Sunday. Her broadcasting career includes presenting radio series such as BBC R4′s A Good Read and Writers’ Workshop. She is a regular guest on the radio arts programme Saturday Review.
Doughty was born in the East Midlands and grew up in Rutland, in a rural area that later provided the setting for her third novel, 'Honey-Dew'. She now lives in London. You can find out more about Louise and her books at www.louisedoughty.com.
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post! Future posts will include interviews with authors Joanna Penn and Robert Bidinotto. There will also be a guest post by author Daryl Rothman. Also, in anticipation of my fourth novel, I'll be examining the fascinating psychological phenomenon of Stockholm Syndrome.
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