[Please be aware that I’ve included here precise reference to some key events in this novel, though not plot detail. If you fear your future enjoyment in reading Apple Tree Yard may be at risk, read the novel first – you won’t be disappointed – and come back for my review!]
I became a fan of Louise Doughty’s work almost by accident, when I was given a copy of Whatever You Love, a very distinguished novel and a brilliant study of obsessive grief, and was so impressed with it that I reviewed it on this blog. Subsequently, I have read Stone Cradle, set in my native Lincolnshire, and this summer I made a point of buying Apple Tree Yard before I went on holiday.
Apple Tree Yard is a truly magnificent work, shortlisted for the Specsavers National Book Awards 2013, and it certainly merits a prize. It doesn’t exactly fit into the crime genre (just as Stone Cradle isn’t ‘just’ a historical novel), but it is about at least two crimes and, possibly, about several others, depending on how you choose to read it.
This last point holds the vital key to the novel, because this is a book that manages to capture the ambiguities, generosities and tyrannies of the relationships that it describes and also succeeds in conveying that, although no human is perfect and some will commit atrocious acts of perfidy, betrayal, cowardice and cruelty, it is impossible to define anyone as simply good or evil. Even sleazy George Craddock, victim of a horrific murder but also perpetrator of an appallingly brutal crime, is shown to have vulnerabilities and a father who loves him.
The story begins, rather shockingly, with an act of consensual sex between the narrator, Yvonne Carmichael, an attractive middle-aged professional woman, a scientist, and a man who has just picked her up during a visit to the House of Commons. She does not even know his name, but allows him to penetrate her in the vault of the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, which he has offered to show her on what she understands quite clearly to be a flimsy pretext. There is great skill in the way in which this encounter, which triggers the rest of the plot of the novel, is presented. On the one hand, it could be viewed as a grubby sexual exploit between two people who are addicted to risk; on the other, we don’t question Yvonne’s claim that she believed it was an act of mutual tenderness. Despite the fact that she doesn’t know her lover’s name and at this stage does not expect to meet him again, the reader is persuaded that this is not just a lustful fumble in the dark: it ‘means’ something. Finally, she does not spare herself some wry reflections on the absurd indignity of the situation: how she has to hobble along with one leg out of her tights, one foot out of her (elegant) boot; how her ‘lover’ – she calls him ‘my love’ throughout the novel – wordlessly passes her his handkerchief to enable her to deal with the physical detritus of their congress.
Yvonne could be seen as a woman who has been taken advantage of by a predatory male, a woman naïve in her assumptions about his motives, despite her intelligence and education. Yet she proves not to be entirely wrong about him, even though it becomes evident that at first he did merely regard her as a quick lay, a conquest that he more or less took on as a personal bet with himself that he could do it. As gradually becomes clear, Yvonne makes use of him, too (and in the most extreme of ways, as we discover in the final sentence of the novel). Furthermore, the two other men who are described in detail, Guy, Yvonne’s husband, and George Craddock, who is an academic she meets through her work, both also take advantage of her. Of these three men, Guy is the gentlest, yet also the most selfish. He says that he loves her and is fiercely protective of the family life they have built together, but he refuses to give up the young mistress with whom he is conducting an affair that compromises him professionally. Yet it is Guy who stands by Yvonne when she is accused of being an accessory to murder and Guy who cares for her after the trial, despite the fact that she has done to him the one thing that he always said that he would find unforgiveable: humiliating him in public.
The reader is always on Yvonne’s side, but the author shows that we’re not always expected to think that she is right; it’s clear that she behaves badly, too. There are mitigating circumstances. As the court case unfolds, we discover that her son has bi-polar disorder, that he fights her off when she tries to help him, that she stalled her career for many years (despite, it is implied, being as able as, or more so than, her husband) to raise her family and that now she is the person at the centre of the family who has to try to hold it all together whilst also holding down a demanding and financially insecure job. This sounds a bit like an addition to the already large literary dossier of women’s complaints about being treated unequally, but it is less clear-cut than that, just as the encounter in the vault could be viewed either as a sordid seduction by a stalker or a joyful, life-affirming act of freedom. I don’t know whether Louise Doughty studied rape and stalking cases in order to write this novel, but of one thing I am sure: if she were a barrister, she would be equally good at putting the case for the defence or the prosecution.
Yvonne’s treatment by George Craddock can’t be defended: it is hideous and brutal. The sequence of events that it unleashes reveals the strengths and foibles of all the main characters. The trial is described with forensic accuracy (Louise Doughty acknowledges help from various legal authorities in her depiction); the descriptions of how a jury operates chime exactly with my own experience of jury service earlier this year.
I realise that I may have made Apple Tree Yard sound like a gloomy book, but it isn’t at all. Partly because of the author’s dexterous use of language and partly because there is a rich vein of dark humour underpinning the whole story, it is a bright gem, a novel that captures the privileges and drudgery, the ecstasies and ironies and, above all, the ambiguous moralities of modern middle-class life. If you haven’t read it yet, read it now!