It was Rudyard Kipling who said, “of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are our fears.” In Louise Doughty’s latest novel Apple Tree Yard, it is the fine line between fear and lies which presents itself as the driving force behind the narrative, weaving a tangled web between characters, plotline and reader’s expectations, and pushing the story along like a slow, intense descent into Dante’s Inferno.
Fifty-something Yvonne has fought hard to be at the top of her profession as a renowned geneticist. Living with her equally successful scientist husband on the outskirts of London, Yvonne looks like she has it all: a successful career, good marriage, two grown children. And yet, when she meets a stranger during a presentation at the Houses of Parliament, and decides to let this stranger show her an underground chapel, her world becomes irrevocably changed as she starts a risky and very unpredictable affair with him. Without knowing his name or anything at all about him, Yvonne begins to obsess about the encounter, and soon becomes entangled in a game in which it isn’t clear who is making the rules.
This is one of those novels that will drag you along, kicking and screaming, as you can sense the foreboding in every sentence that is written by Yvonne in her first person narrative, which is part introspection, part letter addressed to her lover. The presentiment of a threat is heightened by the portrayal of the city of London – an important character in itself – in which the depiction of the small, historical alleyways, hidden nooks and crannies and underground mazes in places like the Old Bailey imbues the narrative with historical weight and a sense of secrecy. And just as it seems easy to get lost amongst that feeling of history, and amongst London’s many little hiding places, the story of Yvonne’s “getting lost” takes a little more effort on the part of the reader.
This novel is really several stories in one – firstly there is the story of the love affair, which despite some very un-romantic elements still bears the hallmarks of a romance; then there is the story of not one, but several crimes; and lastly there is the courtroom drama, which acts like a framework for the other two plotlines. It is a tribute to Louise Doughty’s honed writing skills, that- apart from a few jarring notes – the transitions between those various elements are almost seamless. There are moments when the plot slows right down and offers painful moments of Yvonne’s introspection, but despite this the balance somehow seems to work, leaving the reader with haunting, and insistent memories long after the novel has finished. If you liked Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, my bets are that you will probably want to check out Apple Tree Yard.