The Body Lies is the third Jo Baker I have read. I enjoyed Longbourne. I absolutely adored A Country Road, A Tree. On the scale of loving, The Body Lies comes somewhere in the middle of the two. It’s cleverness is off the scale.
It opens with the unnamed protagonist falling victim to a random assault on the streets of London. Fortunately her unborn child is not harmed. so she insists she is OK. Fast forward 3 years, and she decides to take up a post as a creative writing teacher at a northern university. Her husband, however, decides to stay on at his London teaching post, but he will visit her and their son at weekends. Cue her move to an isolated house in the country where there is no mobile signal, and neighbours who advise she gets a dog.
Meanwhile, at the university, she is soon overworked due to her fellow lecturers being on sick/research leave. Her creepy touchy-feely boss taking advantage of her inexperience to pile on an ever increasing workload. As for the students taking on her MA in creative writing course … a mixed bunch if ever there was one: a lawyer, writing a typically violent crime novel, an American student turning her life experiences into inventive fantasies and the boy mourning the death of his girlfriend who has decided he will only ever write the truth. As the story progresses, that objective turns into a threat ….
… because our protagonist doesn’t behave as she ought and soon has secrets that she does not wish to come to light. Of course, she ties herself in knots by not observing the protocols that would have protected her. But it’s all too easy to want to believe the best in everybody.
A conventional thriller would be too simple for Baker to write. A metafictional riff on the conventional thriller on the other hand? One involving a university tutor teaching one of her students how to write a non-generic thriller, at the same time as she becomes the targetted “victim” of another. “Victim” in inverted commas because one of the questions posed is whether Baker’s protagonist is to blame for any of it. A lot of bad stuff happens to her, and the men in her life do behave badly (some more than others), BUT she makes some poor choices. There came a point when I could no longer excuse her for everything.
The narrative isn’t straightforward. Baker inserts sample writing from the students, some successful, others purposefully less so to aid the discussion about what makes fiction work. Also administrative reports, official complaints, all of it blending well into a narrative which returns again and again to short descriptions of a body lying in a frozen landscape; the literary nature of these at odds with the ugliness of the death that preceded it. Underlining the point that Baker is satirising the very genre she has just added to.