Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Book of You.
Kendal meets the challenge to write a believable, contemporary gothic account of a woman trapped in a nightmare of stalking. The novel has the studied eye of someone with an acute understanding of the grotesque underbelly of human nature in all its gory and horror. This understanding essentially shapes the characters who inhabit The Book of You. Unfolding in Clarissa’s fractured first-person diary, this stunning psychological thriller grips us from the very first page.
Clarissa is driven by loneliness and loss after the departure of Henry, her ex-boyfriend who recently moved from Bath to take up a professorship at Cambridge. Vulnerable and a little reckless, she makes the mistake of sleeping with university colleague Rafe Solmes after attending a celebration for his publication of a new book about fairy tales. Clarissa remembers drinking some wine, but after that her memory is spotty. She vaguely recalls a sordid sexual encounter that leaves her bruised and battered. Like the wives of Bluebeard and the doomed first wife in The Arabian Nights, Clarissa should have heeded the warnings: “Men need secret places, Clarissa.”
Laced with tension and fear that forms the core of her diary, Clarissa records Rafe’s constant, chilling harassment. Like an old grandfather clock ticking away the minutes, there’s a constant sense of urgency. Clarissa must note all she can after each incident, no matter how small. From the nights of violent shivering and bad, bad dreams to the fractured faces of other bewildered women in similar circumstances, what starts out as concerned text messages from a man purporting to be a friend becomes something far more sinister and dangerous. Clarissa tries to take away the self pity by heeding the advice from the leaflets published by the local council that tell her “whenever possible do not talk to him.”
Clarissa’s dilemma is that police are no help unless she can prove she’s been physically injured. She can complain all she likes, but she sees all too clearly what will happen if she does. Miss Norton, the little old lady who lives in the ground-floor, flat is a fairy godmother of sorts, but Clarissa neglects to tell her about Rafe’s growing harassment. She also fails to tell her parents, and her best friend, Rowena, whom she has recently reconnected with after a two-year break.
Luckily Clarissa gets to go to Bristol to sit on a seven-week jury trial, a “world where Rafe wasn’t” and a place where she isn’t being spied upon. She meets fellow jury members including handsome firefighter Robert and kindly Annie, the only two people who seem to calm the storm of Clarissa’s unraveling life. As the trial gets underway, Clarissa learns of the violent rape of heroin addict and prostitute Carlotta “Lottie” Lockyer. A group of drug dealers stalked Lottie, viciously dragging her on a terrifying journey from Bath to London and into the darkness of their sadistic world.
Switching from Clarissa’s first-person diary entries to a third-person narrative, (a bit confusing at first), Kendal’s skillful blend of words and imagination build the tension and sustain a rollercoaster of emotions from start to finish. Clarissa learns more about Lottie and the men in the dock, how they forced her strip and perform oral sex for them ( the trial is quite graphic). Her diary entries, meanwhile, take on a whole new meaning: she’s comes to acknowledge that there’s nothing random about “freaky creep” Rafe and his evil ministrations. Finding herself alone and isolated, Clarissa presses on, trying to reason with herself that Rafe knows nothing about her daily trips to Bristol.
As Clarissa begins to form a connection to Robert, she’s plunged into soul-sickness—constantly hurt, grieving, and tired. Robert is supportive and trustworthy, but she can’t seem to lay down her terrible burden even when Rafe ramps it up with series of kinky, perverted photos, echoing the fairy tales he so vehemently loves. The gothic tone in what is essentially a terrifying and disturbing fish-out-of-water tale puts us front and center onto Rafe’s warpath and into Clarissa’s dilemma: a criminal justice system that refuses to help while branding women as flawed characters undeserving of retribution.
Kendal certainly proves her point: Sex crimes are disguised as fairy tales, sex is disguised as cannibalism, “and gang rape is disguised as a band of robbers.” Whether she likes it or not, Clarissa is linked to the horrifying things these girls suffer—and to their dreadful fates. Perhaps Rafe, her own “unhandsome prince,” is indeed a harbinger of death. Only Clarissa’s relationship with Robert helps offset the growing danger from an increasingly violent Rafe. She can momentarily rely on someone, since the other figures in her life seem so volatile.
Exploring the power of warped desire, The Book of You is a story of sex and crime and murder and of lovely, innocent maidens who unwittingly become targets for evil. Although the novel flirts with horror and the ending is a bit formulaic, Kendal never sells out to cheap thrills. Yes, her novel is provocative, but it offers much food for thought, even at those times when the story is hard to read.