In my search for new books to read and to expand my repertoire (left to my own devices, I might only be reading about Icelandic detectives with a drink problem), I’ve taken to listening to book podcasts, asking lots of friends for suggestions but also reading round-ups and prize lists. So summer is great: because every paper does those ‘here is what all the writers are suggesting you read’ articles; while some of them recommend their friends’ books and others go pretentious (“the only true accompaniment for the beach is re-reading Tolstoy and early Turgenev”), I watch out for books that pop up in several different people’s selections. And that is a roundabout way of telling you how I found myself reading about a legal intern’s memoir-cum-mystery, The Fact of A Body. [Weirdly, for a book in hardback with such strong recommendations, it is 99p on Kindle in their summer sale which I find bizarre…]
It is a fascinating and troubling read, combining the author’s experience interning at a firm that tries to help people get off death row with a gradually revealed exploration of her family’s own dysfunction and dark secrets. The case she is assigned to (child killer Ricky Langley) has echoes of what lies in the past of her own family: which is child abuse. Suffice to say that this isn’t a light read.
But it is a fascinating one – for me, actually, the story of her own family is the one that affected and stayed with me more. She evokes the fear she felt in a truly chilling way, and how her family chose to deal with it is, in its own way, equally chilling. It’s powerful stuff, brought to life by a truly talented writer.
The parallel tale, of Ricky Langley, starts off with similar power but rather fades as the novel goes on. There is no great insight or further revelation of substance, so for me this side of the story kind of trailed off just as the other grew in interest. By the end, the Langley case almost seems a prop for her to talk about her own demons and what she has been through: there’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but it does make the book slightly uneven as it goes on.
That said, I’d really recommend it: it’s completely gripping from the start, and amongst the excellently structured narrative(s) there are many small moments on the way of enlightenment or insight. It challenged my thinking and assumptions, and it made me think deeply about how stories are used: in law, in families, in our lives. If a book can be wonderfully troubling and magnificently uncomfortable, this is it.