- - Sunday, June 23, 2019



By Jo Baker

Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 288 pages

There are two preludes to “The Body Lies.” The first is a brief description of snow falling on a frozen landscape in the north of England.

“It muffles the roads, bundles up the houses, deepens the meadows, turns the river black by contrast. It settles on the grey-green twigs and branches of the beech wood, sifts like sugar to the hard earth below — and dusts the young woman curled there, her skin blue-white.”

Beautiful, yes. But scary, too.

The second stage-setting prelude is just plain scary. While walking home down a gritty South London street, the unnamed pregnant narrator is attacked by a runner. She escapes by biting him, but not without a nasty blow to face. Worse: The attack leaves her fearful and easily freaked.

She’s also thoughtful. “I wonder what is going on in someone’s life that they need to do a thing like that,” she says to her husband, Mark.

This sense of actions as not discrete but tangled a dense biographical or social matrix is typical of author Jo Baker’s work. In “A Country Road, A Tree,” she imagined the impact on Samuel Beckett of living in France during World War II. In her 2013 best-seller, “Longbourn,” she recreated life in the Bennet household of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” writing not about the five sisters and their useless parents, but about the servants who spend all their waking hours cleaning, laundering, cooking and helping with a myriad task that make the Bennets’ life pleasanter.

In “The Body Lies,” she focuses on that young Londoner who was attacked in the first chapter. She and Mark live in a flat that is seriously too small once the baby is born. On the strength of having published a novel she gets a job teaching creative writing in a northern university. Though accommodation there is so much cheaper that they could buy a house, schoolteacher Mark is unwilling to suddenly up and leave his students in London. So she departs alone, planning to spend vacations and weekends together until he can join her.

Thus she becomes essentially a single mother with a full-time job living in a remote cottage in the beautiful but chill rural north. She loves being with her little boy, likes most of her colleagues and tackles her work competently. But it is not easy. The most talented of her students, Nicholas, is also the most disruptive.

After listening to another student’s novel, which begins with a detective finding a dead girl near a river, he slams it. “Does it have to start with a dead woman? I don’t know this woman. She could be anybody. Literally. Any. Body. She has no agency, she’s not a character, she’s a device. She’s not real, so we don’t care.”

But in fact he does care. He’s seriously upset. Yet when he turns in his own work in progress, it centers on a young man obsessively thinking of a riverside encounter with a young girl who is later found dead. He differentiates his work from his classmate’s by saying he is only writing the truth.

Alarming as this is for the narrator in her pedagogical role, things get worse when it becomes clear that his later writings focus on her. Pondering his work and actions, she considers whether he is deranged, but rejects that idea. “He was not as mad as he made out He was set on his path intentionally, not because he was deluded. It was a deliberate fiction.”

The cover of this book characterizes it as “a riveting novel of psychological suspense.” This is misleading. It is somewhat suspenseful at times, but the author plants so many enormous signposts pointing the way things are headed that few readers will be surprised at the outcomes.

What will rivet them is the meditation on women’s bodies, both in fictions such as those produced by Nicholas and the other creative writing students, and in lives such as the narrator’s and that girl who was described lying in the snow on the first page. (This novel, too, adopts the conventional beginning.)

Hers is just one of the women’s bodies in theses pages. We see the narrator pregnant and read of a compulsive eater who aims to look pregnant but simply balloons up. We see them as objects of male attention or manipulation. We also see them diligently weaving lives as mothers, teachers, wives, girlfriends, students.

Jo Baker’s achievement is to show that everything is threaded together, so that the female person who is the teacher or wife or mother, can be undermined by social betrayal, or traumatized when her agency is stolen by a someone who treats her as a body to be used.

The narrative of “The Body Lies” is a train of brilliantly realized scenes that can speed the reader along, but it is better to stop now and then to ponder the issues raised by this thought-provoking book. Not a conventional “summer read” perhaps, but a rewarding one.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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