The Body Lies by Jo Baker
Published by Doubleday, 2019
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
While The Body Lies is indeed a thriller, it also functions as an examination of the genre itself. Our unnamed narrator is a published novelist who accepts a job at a remote university in an attempt to escape the trauma of a random attack she suffered several years prior. Once there, she must attempt to balance the strain of a long-distance marriage, parenting a toddler, assimilating into a new community, and mediating heated debates in her MA writing course. Things take a sinister turn when it becomes clear she is the focus of the novel being written by one of her students; a student who seems to be unhealthily fixated on her.
Though this has all the hallmarks of a typical thriller (a mystery to be solved, a dangerous adversary to be thwarted, and a sense of mounting tension that builds towards a breathless climax), it’s important to be aware that much of the novel is slower, more ruminative, and character focussed than typical examples of the genre. This is deliberate, with Baker primarily focussed on dissecting and subverting the common trope of thrillers opening with the body of a woman. The narrator and her students have several discussions about the topic, bemoaning the victimisation of women, the objectification of their bodies, and the use of female figures as plot devices devoid of context or agency, used to further the stories of men. Baker’s novel opens with the same motif, but not only does she go on to uncover who this girl was – and who she could have been – she also takes the time to craft a complex, believable heroine who is never defined by her relationship to a man despite the attempts of those around her to quash her sense of control.
Baker shrewdly suggests why women in thrillers are typically presented the way they are, highlighting the parallel struggles they face in the real world to rid themselves of the male gaze; to retain true autonomy and live without fear in a society that constantly puts them at risk. The narrator’s job as a creative writing teacher allows the book to organically discuss its own themes in a pleasingly meta way – often playing with the line between reality and fiction – while also providing commentary on the treatment of women in academia.
It’s not a perfect read, however. Though it invites lots of discussion around the role of women in genre fiction, it is guilty of falling back on a couple of equally common mental health tropes that go disappointingly undeveloped. It also falls into the trap of providing a rather twee concluding chapter that reads like a checklist of loose ends that need to be wrapped up. That said, this is definitely one of the more interesting thrillers I’ve read in a long time, with strong prose and thematic depth that should see it appeal to fans of genre fiction and literary fiction alike.
You can pick up a copy of The Body Lies from Book Depository by clicking here.