The Body Lies
Jo Baker
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Buy *The Body Lies* by Jo Baker online

The Body Lies
Jo Baker
288 pages
June 2019
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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In The Body Lies, Baker attempts to examine obsession and desire while meditating on the nature of marriage and university life. There's something disconcerting about the way the author's strikingly elegant prose reflects the psyche of the story's protagonist, an unnamed, mild-mannered fiction writer from South London who--as the novel opens--has just survived an attack by a man on busy, dirty Anerley Road. Though her husband, Mark, hugs her and tells her that she's not to blame for the attack, the memories of "the Blue Anorak Man" remain fixed like a photograph in her mind.

For the most part, Baker's heroine manages to move on from the Blue Anorak Man. In fact, his attack serves as a catalyst to the narrator's ever-increasingly fraught relationship with Mark. Three years later, she's raising Sam, her son, and desperate to get out of London. She interviews for a job as a literature professor at a Northern university, a place where she can finally feel good and civilized and safe. Mark stays back in London, and she moves to isolated Gil House, "a world away from our old life; it all looked so comfortable and safe."

Under pressure from creepy Professor Scaife, she tutors a variety of ambitious students, becoming wrapped up in their conceptual stories that are both dramatic and comedic. She's naturally drawn to rich, arrogant Nicholas Palmer, whose stolen illicit sexual urges set off a series of events which may connect him to a grisly local murder. Through the narrator's insights into the students' stories, Baker upends her narrative, using the trick of fiction to tell the inner truths of students Meryl, Karen, Stephen and Tim. They are all outwardly complimentary about each other's stories, until Meryl launches a formal complaint and Nicholas disappears after writing a work about wanting "to fall up into the sky."

Our heroine attempts to check Nicholas's file. With another lecture to write and deliver and more meetings to attend, she tries to tread the delicate line between coping splendidly and inviting Nicholas "to hoist another bag to her saddle." There's also the meeting with the girl which Nicholas arranged in advance, the riddle of the place they used to go to in the woods in the middle of the night during Nicholas's term before the summer ended.

Framing the novel are the descriptions of a body lying in the sun, "her skin almost blue against the white as ice creeps over cold flesh." We aren't sure how this gruesome death is connected to Nicholas, though through our heroine's investigations, we come to understand that a girl's life was taken and that her body was punished for her exercising power to pursue her own sexuality. Baker lays the groundwork for a maze of her characters' misdeeds, a series of actions filled with hints of past slights as well as visits by probing detectives who seem frustrated by our heroine's dead ends and detours.

Baker fills the story's passages with gorgeous prose. Our heroine is constantly amazed at the beauty of the natural world, this sometimes-alien landscape of bleached grass, scabs of gray stone and clouds that tumble overhead as their shadows dash across the hillside. She thinks of dark Gil House, Nicholas haunting the place as his presence seems to seep through the woods and lanes and the moor: "I thought how I had caused it all, had even chosen it." Baker quickly peels back the onion, letting the plot unfold until it dawns on us that the seemingly casual relationships between the narrator and her students are actually intricately interconnected.

If only she could go back, rewind and understand what made entitled Nicholas into the boy he is--and also what made Blue Anorak Man do what he did to her. Do women actually have control of their bodies and lives? That the novel should be so fully persuasive in this question is down to Baker's recurrent theme: how swiftly and silently love can slip and slide out of a relationship.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2020

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