Book review: Forbidden fruit of Apple Tree Yard

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 4, 2013 

ST 20130804 AUG01 3773463m

APPLE TREE YARD

By Louise Doughty

Faber and Faber/Paperback/348 pages/ $28.84/Books Kinokuniya/****1/2

Books such as Apple Tree Yard make me doubly thankful, first, that they exist, second, that they are rare.

For this thoughtful and carefully constructed thriller first lures the reader in with elegant, seductive prose, then rips the heart out using narrative twists that should have been predictable but somehow were not.

Reading this novel is as emotionally exhausting as it is exhilarating.

Do not pick it up at bedtime unless you are willing to forgo sleep.

Apple Tree Yard relies on a first-person narrator, which always makes a thriller more difficult to pull off.

This narrator is not precisely unreliable but discloses facts in several stages, adding new items at each retelling.

A surprising amount of information is held back without the reader even realising it - including the narrator's name, Yvonne Carmichael - so the truth of this tale is slippery and liable to sudden mutation as a page turns.

As the story begins, Yvonne, a reputable London geneticist, is on trial for some unknown crime.

A back alley location named Apple Tree Yard is mentioned with portentous significance in court and she sinks into despair.

A 50something mother of two and a well-regarded scientist, she once had status enough to be asked to advise parliamentary committees on genetic legislation.

On one such trip to the House of Lords, she gave in to an impulsive invitation from a younger, good-looking stranger.

Their encounter develops into an affair in spite of and perhaps because of her three decades of marriage and familial obligations.

Finding out how a casual affair moves into criminal territory is the first and easiest pay-off of the story.

More uncomfortable truths lie beneath the surface as the reader begins to truly digest the tale.

Apple Tree Yard is British writer Louise Doughty's seventh novel and stands right up there with her sixth book, Whatever You Love (2010).

That well-told story of loss and motherhood was in the running for the Costa Book Award and Women's Prize For Fiction.

The protagonist in Apple Tree Yard challenges readers' assumptions in several ways, not only through the twisting first-person narration.

Yvonne is at least two decades older than the typical protagonist of the recent rash of sexy books that have followed the success of erotic trilogy Fifty Shades Of Grey.

For several scenes before her name is revealed, she calls herself Y, after the chromosome found only in men, and her lover/partner-in-crime is X.

The chosen diminutives are appropriate also because this story subverts convention.

Yvonne has traits which, the author points out, are often identified as the prerogative of males - enjoying casual sex, brilliant scientist, desirous of violent revenge.

Better yet, she is straightforward and thoroughly unapologetic about these facets of her personality - and is also a caring mother and nurturing wife.

Can a female character have all these traits and yet appeal?

Doughty has crafted not just a thriller but also a book that forces the reader to confront how he or she individually views men and women and their roles in society.

Without the narrator standing on a single soapbox, there are quiet indictments that will have many readers nodding: of the unequal division of domestic chores, the corresponding sacrifice of a woman's career, the automatic stigma and painful social consequences when a female is revealed to be anything other than a chaste, self- sacrificing Madonna.

I am glad Apple Tree Yard is hard to forget. The world could do with more thinking on these matters.

If you like this, read: The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison (2013, Penguin, $19.80, Books Kinokuniya). The late Canadian author paints a powerful portrait of a disintegrating marriage en route to murder.

akshitan@sph.com.sg