Jo Baker: The Body Lies
Published By: Doubleday Books
Buy It: here
What The Blurb Says:
When a young writer accepts a job at a university in the remote countryside, it’s meant to be a fresh start, away from the big city and the scene of a violent assault she’s desperate to forget. But when one of her students starts sending in chapters from his novel that blur the lines between fiction and reality, the professor recognises herself as the main character in his book – and he has written her a horrific fate.
Will she be able to stop life imitating art before it’s too late?
At once a breathless battle-of-wits and a disarming exploration of sexual politics, The Body Lies is an essential book for our times.
What I Say:
The Body Lies is a novel that presented me with a dilemma. It is a wonderfully immersive and absorbing novel to read, but it is so difficult to review. This is nothing to do with the novel itself, but more my response to it, and the fact that it makes you think about the very act of writing.
I am not someone who is talented enough to write a novel, so my blog is my creative outlet, and I happily type away, reviewing a book or musing on bookish things, writing how I want, when I want. Jo Baker’s timely and crucially important novel in the era of #MeToo has opened up a new literary debate of how we present ourselves and others when we write anything that others may read.
The Body Lies is seemingly a straightforward story of an unnamed Narrator, who after being assaulted one evening, starts to fear being in this place which has brought her so much pain, and eventually makes the decision that she and her family need to move away. She secures a job teaching a Creative Writing Course at a University in the countryside, and believes that this could be the fresh start they all need.
Unfortunately, Mark, her husband who is a teacher, decides that he cannot make this situation work and has to stay in the city and come up to see his wife and toddler son Sam when he can.
The narrative is interspersed with descriptions of an unnamed female body lying motionless outside, which leads us to wonder who it is, and why they are there. The fact that it has no name adds not only a layer of mystery, but also almost adds a distance between us. If we knew the body’s name, we would subconsciously start to make assumptions about her. We would be able to work out an approximate age, a life story borne from our imagination and our preconceptions – but how can you do that when you don’t know what they are called. This is why having an unnamed Narrator also works so well – we can’t make any assumptions about them, we as readers can only rely on the written word as it it is presented to us to make our own history for this character.
It is also interesting that the Narrator teaches a Creative Writing Course, where students are encouraged to write what they want, with the only limits being their imaginations. The students that take part all bring their own ideas and histories to the course, but it is Nicholas who strives to continually disrupt the class. He aggressively challenges the other students on what they have written and why they have chosen the words they have – especially in their depictions of women and their bodies.
The students bring their work to class, and as Nicholas’ work is read out, it is a very dark and disturbing story, which raises questions about how much is real, and how much is fiction. Events take an even more unsettling turn, when the Narrator realises she is becoming the focus of his stories, and her private world is seeping into his public fiction.
Nicholas is an intoxicating figure, who charms and beguiles many of the people around him, and the Narrator finds herself drawn to this troubled young man. As readers we can see that the professional boundaries are starting blur. The Narrator is lonely, her husband is emotionally and geographically distant, and she is taking the tentative steps to re-integrating herself back into the world after the violent assault she suffered.
When she attends a party with her students at Nicholas’ house, she finally seems to be starting to relax and unwind. Her rented cottage is nearby, and when Nicholas offers to walk her back, we are witness to a disturbing sexual assault which removes the line between student and lecturer, and puts her into a situation which will have devastating consequences for all involved. The most unsettling part of it is that the Narrator believes the best way to react is to let it be over with, and tries to get back to her normal routine.
From this point on, the novel moves forward with the Narrator now part of Nicholas’ story. This is why The Body Lies works so well. We see different viewpoints of the same events – people have their own narratives, all with distinct voices and preconceptions of all the characters, and as the Reader, we move between them, trying to determine what we believe to be the truth. When we see work from the other students in the class, the font is different, the styles are distinct, and the words chosen reflect the personality of the writer.
Jo Baker has written a relevant, intelligent and thought provoking novel, that turns the traditional concept of a linear plot and narrative on its head. It is a perceptive and truthful story, about what it means to be a woman in fiction and in reality. Irrespective of who you are and what you have achieved, assumptions will be made, and judgements passed. The Body Lies makes us think about how much we take for granted when we read a work of fiction, and more importantly how we need to challenge the subconscious notions of what being a woman in today’s society means.
I loved it.