Yvonne Carmichael isn’t likeable, which is always a risk with a protagonist. It explains why, in this current phase of distaste for the Prologue, the author presents us with a prologue. We know as soon as we begin that something is going to go wrong. And of course it does go wrong, spectacularly and all too believably wrong. But we’re torn. People aren’t good or bad and bad things are not selective. So in spite of Yvonne’s unlikeable nature we feel for her. What saves Yvonne is that she’s human. This is true of the mysterious Mr X, too – remember this: given what we learn about him, his history and the knowledge it must necessarily give him, could it not be an act of kindness – in a twisted way – when the floor gets too hot and that moment comes. An unreliable narrator she may be, but the crux is that she’s no more nor less reliable than you or me. In one sense I can believe there is in fact a deeper honesty at work here, for Yvonne ultimately admits more to us than any Jury would ever hear, and her judgement of herself is inescapable. People are stories. ‘The stories we tell in order to make sense of ourselves, to ourselves.’
Ms Doughty could have chosen any number of high-flying professions for Yvonne, but what a pleasing stroke to pit nature so visibly against nurture – to question the predisposition of our genes against how circumstance shapes us. There is the juxtaposition of fact against inference where it comes to the central hub of Yvonne’s field. ‘DNA made me, and DNA un-made me’, she says. How irrefutable DNA evidence has become. And yet on the other side there is a lingering sense of the genetic predisposition to mental health issues that threads the maternal family line.
I’ve had the dubious honour of serving on a jury at the Old Bailey. It wasn’t a high profile case, but it was a serious one, and Louise Doughty has caught that unique atmosphere perfectly: The slow erosion of excitement; the ever-swinging pendulum of the jury’s opinion; the studied theatrics of those polished players in their gowns and wigs; the moments of levity that rise so unexpectedly you could almost believe a bird had blundered in to stir the turbid air; even the wide-eyed relief with which you greet the weather outside, no matter what it throws at you – just aware that yours, at least, is the choice to brave it. And that moment at the end where everybody holds their breath is captured perfectly.
There are layers in this book that it’s well worth the effort to uncover, and there are things that linger in the mind well after the book has been closed.