The Book of You is Claire Kendal’s debut novel. I picked it up as an impulse buy in a newsagent in an airport, drawn by the title, and then by the blurb on the back.
Clarissa Bourn is being harassed at work. Rafe wants to be in her life and won’t take no for an answer. She tries to be polite and nice, like she was brought up to be, but he doesn’t seem to be getting the message. Then Clarissa gets called for jury service and thinks that she will have a break from Rafe, The trial is going to be seven weeks long. Having called 999 on a previous occasion, Clarissa is reluctant to go to the police. After all, what has he actually done? She has leaflets on stalking, yet can’t quite bring herself to acknowledge what is happening to her, can’t quite grasp that Rafe won’t respond like a normal person.
The trial is not the respite she hoped for. Rafe continues to follow her, contact her, harass her. And the trial is of five men accused of abducting and gang raping a drug addicted woman who has sold sex to pay for her drugs. What people say about the victim underlines and reinforces Clarissa’s own shame, yet she sticks to the advice in the leaflets, even when Rafe’s actions escalate.
This book is fantastic. Kendal captures the shame, self-blame, anxiety and bafflement felt by victims of sexual harassment and stalking. Clarissa can’t understand why this is happening and believes it must be something about her that has caused it. She’s ashamed of her behaviour and believes people will judge her. It takes a long time for her to grasp that this is about what’s wrong with Rafe. I particularly enjoyed the way Kendal has captured the effects of prolonged anxiety and stress on Clarissa’s body and mind, the way the constant alertness, feeling trapped, being suspicious of everyone and everything, grinds a person down. This is an exceptional study of what it’s like to be stalked. There’s a lot in the book about the way women are treated by society, especially how evidence of any sexual activity is used to diminish and punish victims, and how they’re expected to respond with politeness, but it is all conveyed by the story and there is no sense of lecturing by the author. It is very skilfully handled.
I don’t want to give away the ending, but I do want to say something about it. Initially, I found it somewhat unsatisfying. There’s an expectation that this kind of book will go a certain way, so anything that’s different from that is surprising. I guess it shows how deeply ingrained those expectations are. The ending is uplifting. That’s not how it’s supposed to go. And, on reflection, I find that I like that.
The Book of You is very, very good. It is absorbing, claustrophobic, scary and compelling. It’s so good I’ve broken my six month blogging hiatus to write about it (and I’ve read a few good books lately). I’ll be looking out for Claire Kendal’s next one.