“The Body Lies” by Jo Baker
Hardcover, 288 pages
Set for publication June 18, 2019, by Knopf Publishing Group
Trigger warnings: Assault, rape, drug use
“He wants her to read what he has written. He wants to watch her face as the words slip inside her head and wash his colours through it he wants to make her see make her taste and make her feel make her feel.”
After a writer is attacked in her South London neighborhood, she accepts a teaching position at a university in the English countryside. It’s supposed to be an escape from her past, but she winds up in more danger when one of her students starts turning in chapters of his book that hit just a bit too close to home for her. She is his main character, and he’s in control of what happens to her. Now, she has to protect herself and her son from what comes next.
“Why couldn’t he do what the rest of us did and just make something up?”
One of my first thoughts while reading this book was, “OK, here’s a book written from the perspective of the main character, who is never given a name.” Daphne du Maurier did the same thing in writing “Rebecca,” which happens to be my all-time favorite book. But this method didn’t quite work for me in “The Body Lies,” and I’m not really sure why. The only purpose I can figure is that perhaps it makes her seem more vulnerable. For the sake of clarity in this review, I’m going to call our main character “the professor.”
I appreciated the pace of this book. There is constant conflict and tension right from the beginning, when a stranger attacks the pregnant professor. The baby, little Sam, is OK and we see him a lot throughout the rest of the novel.
By the time Sam is 3, the professor is still reeling from what happened to her and is desperate to start over. In her desperation, she leaves her husband Mark out of the equation. He can’t just up and leave London, due to his own teaching position. They arrange for him to come and spend weekends and holidays with her and Sam, but here is a huge point of conflict.
More strife arises at the professor’s new job. Immediately she gets a lot of work dumped on her because one colleague is working remotely and another is on extended sick leave. She gets along well enough with her coworkers, but there always seems to be drama in her classroom. When the class discusses the issue of fiction that is “punishing women for their sexuality,” that’s when one student starts turning in work that gets more creepy all the time.
“I’ll only write what happened. I’ll only write the truth.”
Scenarios throughout the book pose interesting questions regarding the treatment of women. Over and over again, the professor is objectified by men in personal and professional arenas. It reflects a society that has come so far and yet made so little progress in the area of gender equality.
I found myself rooting for the professor as she fought to protect her son. He plays an interesting role in affirming her, not just as a mother but as a strong, capable person. There are some powerful and sad but beautiful scenes near the end of the book that I obviously don’t want to discuss, as they would give away too much of the ending. But let’s just say females are strong as hell, in case you didn’t already know.
This book also provides powerful examples of why mental health care is so very important, and paints a picture of what can happen when we don’t seek help for ourselves and others.
“… all I’d wanted, all along, was not to be a part of his story. To be left alone to get on with mine.”
Overall, “The Body Lies” is a moving, chilling blend of literary fiction and psychological thriller. It’s definitely not a “whodunit,” but the cat-and-mouse action will keep you guessing as to the fate of the characters.
I received a finished copy of “The Body Lies” from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
About the author
Jo Baker is the author of six novels, most recently Longbourn and A Country Road, A Tree. She has also written for BBC Radio 4, and her short stories have been included in a number of anthologies. She lives in Lancaster, England, with her husband, the playwright and screenwriter Daragh Carville, and their two children.