The Body Lies by Jo Baker review – creative writing can be murder

Jo Baker’s recent books have been metafictions: Longbourn, the story of the servants who are barely mentioned in Pride and Prejudice; and A Country Road, a Tree, following Samuel Beckett’s life in wartime France. Both are brave and clever novels finding new worlds in the shadows of the literary canon. The Body Lies has no obvious specific intertext, but it sits in uneasy, challenging relation to contemporary popular fiction.

We begin, conventionally enough, with an invitation to take aesthetic pleasure in the death of a pretty young woman, lying dusted by snow under a beech tree on a moonlit night. Then we turn the page to meet the unnamed narrator, who is heavily pregnant, being assaulted by a strange man outside her London flat. Afterwards, the baby is OK, she says, so she’s OK, and though the midwife doesn’t believe her, her partner thinks she should “let it go” and move on. And then, 10 pages in, we skip three years and begin again – disturbed, waiting for some explanation – as the narrator starts a new job teaching creative writing in a northern university and caring for her toddler while her partner continues his school-teaching career in London.

There is some good campus satire: since one of the writing professors is on research leave and the other off sick with stress, our heroine finds that she isthe creative writing department. She must teach students who have requested accommodation for special circumstances while declining to share the nature of the circumstances to be accommodated. She is required to attend induction sessions delivered at the end of the year’s teaching, to carry chairs from one decrepit room to another for meetings and to work all night in a hopeless gesture towards increasingly bizarre bureaucratic demands. Meanwhile, back at the remote rural cottage where the narrator and her son are living, three-year-old Sam sees a man watching them in the dusk and the neighbours warn her to get a dog. There is no phone reception. A grieving and confused old woman wanders the lanes and the farmer at the end of the road is hostile: something is wrong, but neither we nor she know what.

 

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