Book Review: The Book of You by Claire Kendal

Clarissa Bourne is surely the first person to ever welcome jury duty with open arms. In The Book of You, though, the seven-week criminal trial—itself a gruesome play-by-play of a combined kidnapping/gang rape—comes as a strange relief to Clarissa, whose own life has devolved into a series of moves and countermoves as she attempts to evade the increasingly obsessive attentions of her coworker, Rafe Solmes. She even takes tentative steps towards striking up a relationship with fellow juror Robert—no small achievement, given both her background with Rafe and the messy breakdown of her last relationship. Unfortunately, Robert’s presence in Clarissa’s life threatens to send Rafe into new and more dangerous fits of jealousy, and as his actions become more alarming, Clarissa begins to compile a record of his behavior to take to the police.

There’s no denying that The Book of You is a page-turner. And if Claire Kendal’s prose isn’t particularly daring, perhaps that’s as it should be; no buffer—not even an especially unusual turn of phrase—exists between the reader and the bizarre tale Kendal spins. As a thriller, it is a chilling, satisfying read.

The problem, oddly, is that The Book of You has literary pretensions, and that in the early pages of the book, Kendal lives up to those pretensions remarkably well. The focus here is less on the physical danger Clarissa may be in than it is on the psychological repercussions of harassment and abuse—the ability of the perpetrator to bend the world around him to match his fantasies, transforming the victim’s life into a house of mirrors and consuming her thoughts to such an extent that he is able to possess and control her without ever laying a finger on her. Rafe insinuates his way into Clarissa’s life, turning friends against her and making everyday objects and activities hateful by association. Clarissa gets rid of a bottle of perfume after Rafe correctly identifies the scent, orders a new bed to replace the one he has slept in, and even begins to dislike her own name: “Until you, I loved my name,” she writes, “I don’t want you to take that away from me, too. I can’t let you do that, though I cringe each time you repeat it.” Indeed, Clarissa’s struggles to keep hold of her own identity in the midst of Rafe’s distortions are likely the highlight of the book—wrenching in their desperation, and pointed in their implications:

Mrs. Lawrence was explaining DNA profiling. Clarissa imagined crime scene investigators around her bed, taking swabs, snapping more photographs of her. [Rafe] had turned her into a spectacle, into something grotesque. Somehow, she had to resist letting that overwrite the way she saw herself.

But if this quote nicely embodies The Book of You’s most notable strength, it also points towards a significant failing. Simply put, Kendal’s novel works far better before Rafe’s plans are laid bare in all their grotesqueness—when he is manipulative, abusive, and possessive, but not yet psychopathic. What begins as a cutting and much-needed commentary on the full depth of the devastation wrought by some distressingly common female experiences—harassment, emotional abuse, and date rape—takes a sharp turn towards the sensationalistic about halfway through the novel, and the book suffers for it. Rafe, it becomes clear, is no run-of-the-mill abuser. He carries whips, gags, and chloroform in his briefcase. He sends Clarissa a bouquet of flowers traditionally reserved for funerals. He is strongly implied to have murdered his ex-girlfriend and escaped police attention through his clever disposal of her body. These are the actions of fiction’s favorite kind of serial killer: the kind who carries out his plans with just enough verve and cunning to keep the audience entertained rather than simply disgusted.

Perhaps Kendal means to suggest that Rafe’s earlier and later actions exist on a continuum: that they are—in origin, in intent—essentially the same. In fact, this seems a likely reading. As Clarissa writes, “Chocolates and diamonds and leather gloves. You assault me in the park. You put your hands on my body when I don’t want them there. And then you give me a Valentine’s card. Are all of these things of the same order for you?” And to a certain extent, the escalation of Rafe’s behavior seems aesthetically necessary; a novel, after all, requires some kind of crisis. Besides, extreme violence against women does exist, so perhaps it is unfair to criticize Kendal for invoking it.

On the other hand, that kind of violence already exists within the realm of The Book of You itself; the court case that runs parallel to Clarissa’s story serves as an effectively gritty reminder of the extremes to which misogyny can run. There is no need for Kendal to drive home this point with whips, coffin sprays, and BDSM magazines featuring dubiously consenting models. And the irony is that in doing so, Kendal strips her novel of its most compelling features.

To return to Clarissa’s vision of herself naked and victimized—a “spectacle”—there is a way in which the early chapters of the novel read as a systematic exposure of our vilest, most misogynistic beliefs. Women are, above all else, objects to be seen. A woman who sleeps with one man will sleep with anyone. Women’s time, feelings, and sexuality do not belong to them, but are instead owed to any man who wants them. Men act, but women simply are. You don’t need to have been targeted by a homicidal sadist to have felt the sting of these attitudes; they reveal themselves in more subdued, amorphous ways on a daily basis. And for all Kendal’s efforts to draw sweeping parallels about the fate of women across time and space—fairy tales, Clarissa thinks, are often parables of female victimization—the truth is that she accomplishes this much more effectively by showing how even relatively “low-key” misogyny can wreak havoc on the lives of those who bear the brunt of it. By contrast, in shifting our attention to the more exotic aspects of Rafe’s infatuation, Kendal seems to imply that such behavior is fundamentally aberrant, rather than the disturbingly logical endpoint of rampant sexism.

Let me be clear: The Book of You is not a bad novel. As a thriller, it is everything it should be: gripping, frightening, and expertly paced. What’s more, it tries to do something new and no doubt necessary: rewrite the story of female victimization from that victim’s perspective, stripping it of all prurient glamor. Ultimately, though, this only makes its reversion into sensationalism all the more disappointing.

The Book of You was published in May 2014 by Harper. Find out more about it on Goodreads, or buy it on Amazon.


Filed under Book Reviews, Books I've Read (and Thought About)

2 responses to “Book Review: The Book of You by Claire Kendal

  1. Excellent review. Sensationalism, in its many forms, always runs the danger of being reduced to a cop-out.

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