Jo Baker’s novel The Body Lies opens with two acts of violence, a body curled up in the snow “her skin blue-white, dark hair tumbled over her face” and then our unnamed narrator being attacked on her walk home, a man telling her “what he’d like to do to me” and then attempting to do it. These two seemingly unrelated events do click together eventually, but Baker’s novel goes beyond straight-up thriller.
Three years after the attack, the narrator, a novelist with one published book, has taken a job as a creative writing instructor at a small university in the north of England; London is a city where she no longer feels safe. She believes she and her son, Sammy, with whom she was pregnant when the man assaulted her, can have a more peaceful life outside of the city. Her husband, Mark, doesn’t want to give up his teaching job, so they decide to maintain two households until they can work out a better arrangement. She and Sammy rent a little house, Gill House, with a “view of open fields, a derelict barn, pylons, woodland and sky.”
The narrator feels slightly overwhelmed at work where she is offering a graduate writing class, as well as being tasked to do other jobs left by the professor who’d previously taught writing but who was now on sabbatical in Canada. She is, as it turns out, the sole creative writing instructor.
There are six students in her graduate class, including “the good-looking almost-ugly guy with the cigarettes and the scar through his eyebrow.” That’s Nicholas Palmer, a young writer who is “interested in pushing the form, pushing [his] writing as far as it will go.” Nicholas is talented and problematic. He claims to only write the truth, and soon the narrator starts to recognize herself in some of the pages Nicholas turns in.
The Body Lies has elements that make it very much a thriller: a man lurking outside of Gill House in the dusk, Nicholas’s murky past and suspect mental health, the isolated locale including lack of cell service. The novel is more ambitious than that, though, offering commentary on university politics, the way women are used as props in fiction, and how violence against them is often used as entertainment. This is a literary novel that is both beautifully written and unputdownable.