Diane Chandler Reviews: Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty
Many of you may have watched the BBC Sunday night drama of Apple Tree Yard earlier this year. Having already devoured this stunning novel, I was there curled up on my sofa for the very first episode. While the televised version improved over the course of the four weeks, for me it began badly and not at all as I had imagined. In short, the male love interest was creepy. The opening scenes of sex between our heroine and a stranger in the crypt of the Houses of Parliament, which in the novel were so thrilling, were for me unbelievable. Why would anyone be attracted to him? Well that’s what I felt, but then each to her own…
Apple Tree Yard, the novel, is both a psychological thriller and a compelling exploration of a woman who appears to have it all: a remarkable career, contented marriage, two grown-up kids. And yet, on a whim, she risks losing everything. What I loved most about the book was the way it combined three hugely entertaining elements. First, it’s set in London, an alluring hook for all of us who love to read about the place where we ourselves live. And it’s not any old London, but the nooks and crannies of St James and Piccadilly, which ooze intrigue and history, the toffee shop windows and those cobbled alleyways embracing the city’s oldest pubs, where a foggy darkness lures us around the next corner. Second, the novel handles an extra-marital affair, and that’s always titillating for even the most morally superior of women, wouldn’t you agree? And third, well it’s all about a crime – a heinous one which is simply the cherry on top.
From the off, we know that there is to be a crime. There is a prologue, which opens thus, ‘... I have been in the witness box two days now and I am tired, really tired… She has been down so many different avenues that at first I am not alert to the fact that this new line of questioning has significance.’
There, right on the first page, we are immersed in a lovely sinister tone which sends a shiver, not least because we know that it is our protagonist who is under scrutiny. A heroine who, from there on in, seems to be a thoroughly normal and likeable woman. She could be one of us.
I’ve recommended this novel widely, and discussed it with many women. Most have found the sex with a stranger scene, which catalyses her downfall, a thoroughly believable (dare I say even sensuous) possibility. The choice of the Westminster crypt as location for this scene illustrates the importance of setting in a novel – does it get more clandestine, more atmospheric, more shocking than the spiritual belly of the UK’s seat of power? Some older women have, however, not bought the sex. Nor have they been convinced by the main character herself.
You see, Yvonne Carmichael is a high-flying geneticist. She gives papers at important scientific conferences. Indeed this is how we first meet her, in Parliament. How would such an intelligent, accomplished woman be foolish enough to degrade herself by engaging in such a sordid little affair? This question was asked of me by an older member of my own family. Well I’ve given this some thought. And I would say that most women I’ve known in my life who have touched my soul, and with whom I’ve found a connection, have been high-flyers in some capacity. Be it women with a fabulous career in industry, politics or medicine, successful creative women in the arts and media, or those balancing such senior roles with childcare. And yet, being as close to them as I am, I know that they are also vulnerable too. They are all human. Surely aren’t we all of us capable of weakness? If that one indiscretion were to wheedle its way in, who knows how any of us might suddenly unravel? Apple Tree Yard shows us just how this might happen, taking that weakness and extrapolating it to its utmost.
Oh, and back to the prologue. Well I found it a fabulous device of foreshadowing. With a touch of genius, the opening pages are repeated verbatim towards the end of the novel, when what we have been hurtling towards begins to reveal itself. When our heroine shows herself in her true colours. You might, however, have to re-read the last page for the twist to be brought home in all its wonderful glory. Blink and you may miss it. In the televised drama, I had to rewind the final moments for my husband to get it! Needless to say, if you’ve ever wondered what an unreliable narrator is, then Apple Tree Yard is the novel for you. It is also a simply exquisite page-turner.
Words by Novelist
Diane Chandler, author of Moondance and winner of The People’s Book Prize for Fiction 2016 for her first novel The Road to Donetsk.