Warning: this review contains spoilers!
After finishing Apple Tree Yard (late at night, having hurried home from dinner in order to read the rest!) I then had to pick up Mindy Kaling’s latest book (Why Not Me? – also great but in a very different way) in order to provide some light relief and allow me to sleep. Apple Tree Yard left me feeling on edge, chilly and slightly jumpy; not a good place to be when you’re about to nod off. Louise Doughty has created a real page turner in this courtroom drama of a love affair that spirals way out of control. Yvonne (Y) is a middle-aged academic who specialises in the field of genetics. She has been married to Guy since just after university. One day, while attending a meeting at the Houses of Parliament she encounters X, the man with whom she begins a passionate (and entirely secret) affair. I loved the setting of this book: the author describes London and specifically around Westminster very vividly, pinpointing exact roads which, if you know the area (which I do) really enhances your reading experience as I could imagine X and Y wandering the Victoria Embankment gardens, Temple tube station, the House of Commons etc. Yvonne is not an overly likeable character, but I found her absolutely fascinating – Doughty provides just the right amount of information on her scientific studies without over saturating the reader and making it feel like a textbook, and her inner dialogue about how she feels: “It takes me three days to feel used. Not bad, I think to myself, not bad at all,” puts you right there with her as she wanders through London, as she waits for X to call, as she sits in the dock of a criminal court. I felt very ‘present’ throughout this book.
Throughout the story, Yvonne narrates and uses the second person to refer to her lover X. “I think of you kneeling at my feet, slipping my boot on.” Apple Tree Yard is peppered tantalisingly with foreshadowing: “As it is, the next time I see that same expensive grey suit is in the dock of Courtroom Number Eight and the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, EC1” – it begins with a prologue in which Yvonne is already on trial, so as the chapters fly past there is a building sense of anticipation, of dread; the knowledge that at some point this is all going to go very, very wrong – it is just a case of where and when.
To the author’s great credit, I didn’t guess the ‘when’ at all. When Yvonne is horribly attacked and raped by George, it comes as a real shock – the brutality of it is at once very difficult to read, and the sudden swing in George’s character takes you completely by surprise. Doughty threads her plot together cleverly, so that when the prosecution build their case in the courtroom we see exactly how they do it – referencing Yvonne’s throwaway and seemingly innocuous comment about liking her coffee “cheap and easy” – and as a reader you immediately want to go back through the book and work out where the clues were. The revelations about Guy’s affair also shocked me – and I really enjoyed the feeling of never being sure where the story would go next. The bipolar disorder of Yvonne’s son Adam added to the tapestry of the book – I was relieved when I reached the section which delved into their family life as I would have been frustrated had this information all been kept at a distance. Doughty paints a clear picture of the family – the humdrum of Guy and Yvonne’s marriage, the difficulty of their struggle with Adam – the scene in which they poke around his bedroom is particularly strong.
Doughty keeps us guessing until the final pages of the book, and the revelation that Yvonne did ask X (later revealed as ‘Mark’ – I have to say I wished he’d had a more exciting name!) to kill George sent a real shiver down my spine. Did she mean it? Has she lied about anything else throughout the narrative? We can’t know, and thus the author leaves us feeling unsure of what we’ve just read – in essence we become the jury, the twelve men and women that Yvonne so dreads every day in court. Apple Tree Yard is a brilliant read; fast-paced, unpredictable and at times quite scary – that deals with the themes of justice, delusion, the submission of women (particularly visceral are Yvonne’s admissions of how scared she is of George) and violence. Gripping stuff.