Stone Cradle

As good at putting the case for the defence as for the prosecution…

Apple Tree Yard

[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!

Don’t you love it when a book has personal resonance!

Stone Cradle

Stone Cradle is the second novel that I’ve read by Louise Doughty.  The first, Whatever You Love, was an entirely different kind of book: a contemporary novel about child bereavement.  Stone Cradle is a historical novel set in the Fens at the turn of the twentieth century, about a Traveller family.  I bought it both because I’m interested in the Lincolnshire of that period and because it resonates with me personally, for reasons that I shall explain later, but first I’d like to say that any writer who can produce two such completely different, yet equally compelling, novels ticks several boxes for me straight away.

Stone Cradle is in part about the bleakness of being a working-class woman living in a predominantly farming community of the period.  The story is told in the first person, alternately by a female Traveller, Clementina, and her daughter-in-law, Rose, a farmer’s adopted daughter who renounces the harsh life on the farm for the spurious glamour of running away to marry Clementina’s son, Elijah.  It is one of the poignant ironies of the book that, although they share a great deal in common (including the fact that Elijah is illegitimate and Rose herself the illegitimate daughter of a mother who, like Clementina, worked hard to keep her), she and Clementina detest each other from the moment that they first meet.  This is partly because they are rivals for Elijah’s affections, even though he is more often absent than present from their lives and both know that he is a ne’er-do-well, but even more because the norms and values of each are incomprehensible to the other.  The dual first-person narrative captures this cleverly and is the more accomplished for going over the same events twice, through the eyes of each, without being repetitive.  As someone who is experimenting with this technique at the moment, I know how difficult it is to pull off!

Rose persuades Elijah to live in a house in Cambridge (where Clementina presents herself as an uninvited guest and never moves out) for several years after their marriage, but Elijah’s fecklessness and their consequent poverty force them eventually to re-join the Travelling community.  Rose never fits in.  She dies twenty years before Clementina.  At the beginning of the novel, Elijah, himself now an old man, is shown burying his aged mother.  To save a few shillings, he has Rose’s grave opened and Clementina’s coffin laid on hers.  Had they known, both women would have been appalled; the act epitomises both Elijah’s insensitivity and the privation that has followed them throughout their lives.

Two further qualities make this novel exceptional: the brilliant way in which Louise Doughty captures what it was like to be a member of the nineteenth-century Travelling community and her depiction of the period itself.  The book has obviously been extensively researched, yet nowhere does the author parade her knowledge.  One of the reasons for my being more often than not equivocal about historical novels is that, unless the author is very skilled indeed, the reader is presented with an outside-looking-in narrative: in other words, the author’s fictional take on what s/he has gained from the history books.  Worse, this is sometimes accompanied by what I call the costume drama factor, i.e., a stereotypically ‘olde worlde’ way of making the characters think and speak, probably based on watching too many films.  It takes a very talented writer not to fall into these traps, but Louise Doughty is such a writer.

Now I come to the personal resonance bit.  In her acknowledgments, the author pays tribute to the Romany museum in Spalding (of which I was hitherto unaware) and the Boswell family.  She actually gives the most noble of the Romany families in the book the name ‘Boswell’.  It is another of the novel’s distinctions that the Traveller characters are not over-sentimentalised.  There are rough and feckless Travellers, as well as ‘good’ ones, just as there are good and bad ‘gorjers’ (non-Travellers) living in and around Cambridge.  The Boswell family was well-known in the Spalding of my youth.  Their patriarch, whose first name I don’t know, because he was always referred to as ‘Bozzie’, had ceased to travel and built up a profitable scrap-metal business just outside the town.  By the time I was born, he was reputed to be a millionaire and lived in a very nice house.  I went with my father to see him on several occasions.  In those days, I think that at least some of his family were still Travellers, and some may be still.  Louise Doughty seems to indicate, however, that there is still a permanent Boswell presence in Spalding and evidently the Boswells were the inspiration behind the museum.  I am determined to visit it next time I go to Spalding.

This depiction of grief is brilliant…

Whatever You Love

I have just finished Whatever You Love, by Louise Doughty.  Although I have read some of the author’s journalism, I didn’t realise until recently that she is also a novelist.

Whatever You Love is a highly-accomplished and sensitive novel about a mother’s sorrow after her nine-year-old daughter is knocked down and killed by a careless driver.  The novel describes Laura’s progress through grief and how it changes her and her relationships with others, yet nowhere does the account become maudlin, tedious or sentimental.  Running like a thread through the story is the history of her relationship with her husband, the child’s father, an impetuous Welshman who has dumped her for one of his work colleagues.  A lesser author might not have been able to escape the minefield of clichés offered by this situation, but the intricacies of Laura’s relationship with David are teased out and presented with great subtlety.  Although Laura herself tells the story, it is clear that she was not an entirely innocent party when her marriage broke down and that her current relationship with David is not simply inspired by negative emotions of mistrust and jealousy. There is real warmth in some of their encounters.

Although this book doesn’t really belong to the genre of crime fiction, several crimes take place: hit-and-run; dangerous or careless driving (the police down-grade the hit-and-run crime, much to Laura’s chagrin); the sending of poison-pen letters; threatening behaviour.  At least one murder is contemplated, though it doesn’t take place (or so, on balance, we believe – the author introduces a certain amount of ambivalence here), but the most profound crimes in the novel are those committed against the soul.  Each of the main characters suffers deeply and each is, to a certain extent, the author of his or her own misfortune; overarching this is the sense that they are pawns in a bigger game – to survive, they must adjust to what Fate has given them.  Not all of them make it.

I’m delighted to have come across Louise Doughty’s fiction and even more delighted to discover that she also writes about the Fens.  I’ve now bought Stone Cradle, a novel set in the late nineteenth century and in the area in which I grew up.  Not many writers set their work in this region – Graham Swift and Charles Dickens are the only ones who spring immediately to mind.  I’m certain that the power of Louise Doughty’s pen will capture to perfection the unique grandeur of the Fenland landscape.

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