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OUR KIND OF CRUELTY
by Araminta Hall
MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 2018
288 pages
$26.00
ISBN: 0374228191


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Initially, I thought I'd give this one a pass. It was being presented as part of the currently fashionable domestic suspense sub-genre, complete with an unreliable narrator (or possibly two - the publicity is a bit vague on this count.) But then early reviews started arriving and it seemed a novel that had both impressed and disturbed. So I decided to take a look.

The term suspense is a bit misleading. From the beginning, we know the narrator, Mike Hayes, is in jail awaiting trial for murder. We do not know whom he killed or why. What we do know from the outset is that Mike and his girlfriend Verity have engaged in a sex game that has been of central importance in Mike's life. It was simple enough if a bit startling. The pair would go to a club, entering separately. Verity would allow herself to be picked up by a random customer; she would lead him on until things got a bit too intense. At this point Verity would finger the eagle pendant she always wore, which was the signal for tall, well-built Mike to come to the rescue. When the mark (it's hard to call him anything else) was safely seen off, Mike and Verity would repair to the nearest semi-private spot (frequently the bar toilets) to have very hot sex. They called this scenario the Crave.

It is important to remember that virtually every word in the book is thought, spoken, or written by Mike. We know what he thought Verity felt; we never know for certain what she in fact was up to. And Mike is singularly able to construe events in a way that will reinforce his desire for how things have to be. He is obsessive, and obsessive for a reason. The only child of an alcoholic, he was appallingly neglected until social services finally found out about his situation and took him into care. He was unusually fortunate in his placement - the couple who took him in found him salvageable and went about their rescue work to great effect. He managed to finish school and go on to university (Bristol, where he met Verity) and then to a position in the City, where he was viewed as a rising star.

Verity was a significant part of his education and of his success. She came from a privileged background and was able to teach him the sort of manners that he'd need to survive in his new life. She herself was likewise successful in her chosen field of Artificial Intelligence.

This last fact is of importance. Hall has pulled off a fairly difficult feat - she's written a he said/she said using a single narrator. The reader is asked to consider whether perhaps Verity is the real power in the relationship, whether she is manipulating Mike as a sexual thrill. Her expertise in AI may be meant to suggest a kind of suspicious dark side to Verity. After all, why might she invite Mike to her wedding to another (and considerably more eligible) man? She really shouldn't have.

Reviewing the original British edition in the Observer, Alison Flood quotes Hall's Afterword where she says that she "wanted to change the perspective away from all the brilliant damaged women I'd read in the last few years, and reveal a damaged man." There is no Afterword in my review copy. Instead there is a page of acknowledgements, in which the slightly apologetic author thanks her husband and her son for putting up with her "male-centered anger (when neither of them are the types of men I am angry with )." It's absence is a bit unfortunate, because it does direct the reader's attention to the most important questions raised by the book - how often is the male gaze viewed as normative? how much sexual license is a woman allowed before she is sanctioned?

OUR KIND OF CRUELTY may not, as a reviewer for the NY Times announced, "well turn out to be the year's best thriller," but it is a provocative one and certainly worth a look.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, June 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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