The Body Lies by Jo Baker #BookReview #BlogTour

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.

It's my pleasure to be hosting the blog tour for The Body Lies by Jo Baker today. Many thanks to the author, Doubleday UK and Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me and for my advance copy of the novel.

In this #MeToo era, The Body Lies is a timely and powerful literary thriller which makes for a thought-provoking and unsettling read. Most of the story is told through the perspective of an unnamed woman and although we never know her identity, she is an everywoman - somebody many women will recognise and identify with; and in too many cases, will have experienced something very similar.

The book opens with her becoming the victim of an unprovoked violent assault on her way home from work. It's a case of her being in the wrong place, at the wrong time with her attacker angrily enforcing his sense of entitlement over her. She is pregnant at the time but although her unborn child is unharmed, she no longer feels safe here and when the timeline skips forward three years, it becomes clear that she still struggles with the long-lasting psychological impact of her assault. In an attempt to put it behind her, she accepts a job at a Northern university but her husband, Mark has a lukewarm reaction to her good news, claiming various reasons why he is unable to give up his position as a teacher in a secondary school in London.

The couple agree to a compromise, with the narrator and their three-year-old son, Sammy moving to a remote rented cottage in the North while Mark stays behind and they plan to see each other at weekends and in the holidays. The young mother tentatively begins to settle into her new role but she struggles with the sense of isolation she feels and at work suspects that she isn't up to the job she has been given. Her Head of Department is one of those men who claim to be supportive but his lack of awareness regarding personal space and his readiness to take advantage of her inexperience is only too familiar as she discovers that she is effectively the sole member of staff running the Creative Writing department. As a consequence of her feelings of inadequacy, she feels obliged to accept the heavy extra workload he piles on her.

Although she teaches undergraduates, it is her MA Creative Writing students who challenge her the most and end up determining much of the action she takes as the story progresses. As a published writer, she knows she is expected to pass on the benefit of her knowledge but she doubts her abilities and questions whether having just had one book published so far qualifies her as capable. Alongside the main narrative, there are excerpts from the students' work which leads to some fascinating discussions as they debate - and increasingly argue - over the content of their writing. One of the group, Nicholas Palmer, soon exerts a rather overbearing influence over the rest of the students, demanding trigger warnings and criticising another writer for his failure to give a female character agency. At first, he is quite a sympathetic character, if somewhat dogmatic, and he makes some pertinent points about the way in which the women who are often the victims in crime novels are written. However, his insistence that he only writes the truth soon begins to suggest he is a troubled soul and the narrator becomes concerned for him, noticeably taking a closer interest in him than in her other students.

This is inevitably going to be noticed by others and is another reminder of the standards woman are held to - on the one hand, expected to be caring and nurturing but then derided for becoming too emotionally involved or suspected of inviting sexual attention. There are many points in the novel where it would be easy to criticise her actions but in a world where women are still condemned for speaking out and anger is associated with being irrational, I felt her decisions were sadly only too understandable. As she slowly realises that Nicholas is writing about her, the detached, theoretical discussions about sexual violence are reflected by disturbing real-life events. During the latter part of the book, there are scenes which are shown from the viewpoints of a few different characters and are a striking reminder of how easy it is to make assumptions without knowing the full facts and why accusations often become a case of 'he said, she said.' The various responses to violence are also perceptively explored; asking why women are frequently more palatable as victims than as sexual beings.

The Body Lies is a thriller, of course and as the story progresses, it becomes increasingly tense. The suspense is allowed to build gradually, from the initial sense that things aren't quite as they should be to the terrifying denouement which had my heart in my mouth. It's an irrefutable fact that women are often the victims in crime fiction and it's only too common that their stories are forgotten as they become little more than the catalyst for either the killer or the investigator to take centre stage.
Jo Baker's superb novel provides a persuasive counterpoint and is a damning indictment of sexual politics in fiction and in life; astute, discomfiting and provocative - I thoroughly recommend it.

The Body Lies is published by Doubleday, purchasing links can be found here or if possible, support your local independent bookshop.

Don't miss the rest of the blog tour, details are below.

About the Author

Jo Baker is the author of the acclaimed and bestselling LONGBOURN and A COUNTRY ROAD, A TREE. 
Her new novel, THE BODY LIES, is a thrilling contemporary novel that explores violence against women in fiction but is also a disarming story of sexual politics. 
Jo Baker lives with her family in Lancashire.


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