Louise Doughty’s novel Apple Tree Yard is being marketed as a taut, sexy thriller, with the unique twist that the protagonist, a geneticist named Yvonne Carmichael, is respectably middle aged. While giving testimony at London’s Houses of Parliament, Yvonne is whisked away by a mysterious stranger for some anonymous sex in the Crypt Chapel. Shocked and flattered, she retraces her steps until they meet again. Yvonne finds the unexpected attention renders her young, foolish and unsteady, in all the best ways.
Much is made of the thrill of secret assignations turned upside down. Man Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel references the universality of a woman “in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong man” in her back-of-book blurb for the novel. It turns out the wrong man is not the heroine’s dreamy but distant lover, but another far more dangerous man, and what happens is neither sexy nor thrilling. Spoiler alert: After a rendez-vous in the narrow side street Apple Tree Yard, Yvonne, excited and glowing, attends a faculty party and drinks excessively. She is then beaten and raped by a colleague.
The second act of the book deals with her deep despair and isolation after this incident. It is here that the writing is strongest, and most brutal. Doughty spares no details in the rape scene, nor in the vivid aftermath. Yvonne confides in her lover, but not her husband, stating later she couldn’t stand to “bring it [the rape] into her home.” Yvonne initially cries and showers almost without stop, then lapses into numbness. The moment when her rapist casually e-mails her about a work matter, as if nothing had happened, or in spite of it, is sickeningly rendered. Yvonne consults with a police officer specializing in rape cases who, while sympathetic, is sadly realistic about the likely outcome of her attempt to prosecute her rapist. She breaks off her affair, pulling herself further into secrecy.
Doughty’s style is precise and detail-driven, down to the real minutiae of everyday life. In places, this is refreshingly, even amusingly, honest: Yes, one does have to awkwardly put one’s tights back on after having sex in a public place. In more contemplative passages, however, it bogs the writing down in an endless list of sitting and standing, tea making and traffic crossing.
Yvonne narrates the novel almost entirely as an inner monologue, even transforming conversations from dialogue into mental shorthand. She addresses her lover directly throughout, as “you.” Yvonne is very much an academic, sifting and summarizing information before creating a final version in her mind. In the stronger sections this creates intimacy, but in weaker moments descends into a kind of privileged navel gazing.
Eventually, after running into her rapist on the street, Yvonne breaks and re-connects with her lover, and the result is the carefully plotted final third of the book, which details a court case against them both.
Everything Yvonne has imagined about herself, her lover and their affair is tested by witness revelations and legal wrangling. However, the initial enjoyment of obsessively turning the pages is never regained. Instead, the reader, like the protagonist, is desperate for closure.