Somehow, even as a lifelong fan of British women novelists, I’d never read anything by Jo Baker until this month. It’s especially surprising that I never picked up Longbourn, her riff on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, one of my childhood/young adult faves.
Based on my reading of Longbourn and Baker’s latest, The Body Lies, Baker has the particular storytelling gift of exposing cultural lapses in logic and compassion, and similar lapses in individual readers. In other words, she sets you up like a bowling pin for your own personal epiphany.
Longbourne parallels the plot of Pride and Prejudice by prefacing each of its chapter with a quote from P & P. These function as a sort of shorthand for the where and when of the main characters of Longbourn: Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, Mr. Hill, the butler, Sarah, the ladies’ maid, and Polly, the char. The acts and concerns of the gentry, however, are as the acts of insects — utterly insignificant, except when they happen to sting. And sting they do, in surprising, devastating ways, often with less consciousness of cause and effect than an insect.
The focus is on the hearts and minds of the people employed by the Bennett family. It is their secrets, their desires, their thoughts, and their concerns that move the novel forward. In the precarious and changing economy of early 18th century England, these characters are as concerned with stability and security as the Bennett daughters, and they make a host of distinct sacrifices to stay afloat. This is a page-turner with a deeply embedded treatise on class division.
Reading up a bit on Jo Baker, I learned that she is a writer who tries something new with each of her books. The Body Lies is set in modern-day England, first in London, and then at a university in the north where the unnamed protagonist, a novelist, is hired to teach creative writing. In addition to weaving characters’ thoughts about the nature of fiction into this tale, Baker also takes on misogyny and violence against women.
This was a difficult read for me because the novel’s antagonist, also a writer, was so much like the man who battered me as a teenager. My experience of intimate partner violence was a textbook example, and Jo Baker nailed the charisma, the narcissism, the sense of entitlement, and the drama-queen gestures of the typical batterer. Readers who’ve been abused may want to know this ahead of time.
That said, the writing is brilliant, the narrator/protagonist is complex, and the book reversed some assumptions I wouldn’t have expected myself to have. In other words, like any great book, it taught me something about myself and about others.