Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty made a stellar appearance on my Twitter timeline upon the release of its television adaptation by BBC One in January 2017. Some people loved it, some people hated it, but everyone kept talking about the book. That was the moment when I knew I had to read it, so I checked with one my PhD supervisor to see whether she had a copy, as the story is very much up her alley. She did not, but she was so impressed by the novel that she bought at copy and kindly let me borrow it over the summer.
The main premise of Apple Tree Yard is that ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’. The novel starts with Doctor Y, which we will later learn stands for ‘Yvonne’, a middle-aged scientist writing a letter on her computer to X, a man that she has been having an affair with. Up to this moment, the novel reminded me of I Love Dick by Chris Kraus with its unconventional choice for an adulterous woman (why are they always blonde, young, and stunning in the movies?) reclaiming her voice and her point of view in an affair. Because it is worth highlighting here that woman have been traditionally deployed of agency in love affairs, either by portraying them as murderous femme fatales or by turning them into victims. Yvonne is neither. She knows what she is doing, and she is control of her sexual desire. She is also a mother, a successful and respected geneticist, and what she likes to call ‘normal’. This normal life though has had some ups and downs, many of them related to what it means to be a woman and have a successful career:
This was the thing he never understood: yes, he would give me time to work when I demanded it, but my time was considered to belong to our family unit unless I signalled that I wanted out. His time was considered to belong to himself and his work unless I demanded that he opt in.
While I read about the affair, which takes a good third of the book, I found myself wondering whether I got the reference wrong. I distinctly remembered reading that Apple Tree Yard was a story about sexual assault, and a revolutionary one. So, I kept reading until the crime takes place. It comes out of nowhere, and the violence catches you unaware, defenceless, very much like victims of sexual assaults say these things happen. Again, Doughty presents us with a rape victim that does not fit the image of ‘sexual assault victim’ that we have in mind. By doing this, the author is forcing readers to face our own prejudices about victimhood and sexual violence. Very much misguided by the media and traditional crime fiction, we have come to believe that sexual assault is a crime directed to young, beautiful women as if it were motivated merely by the Western beauty cannon. But sexual assault is an exercise on power in a patriarchal context, hence each and every woman is vulnerable to it.
Relationships are about stories, not truth.
The third act of the book takes place during the trial, which is also the location of the opening scene. Why Yvonne is on a trial, and whether she is found guilty or not-guilty is something that it is irrelevant for the story. Doughty deconstructs crime fiction conventions by focusing the narrative on the victim and her point of view, rather than on the detectives or the lawyers. In fact, the police and the legal teams come up as enemies rather than allies in an effort to portray the unusual cruelty that our society deserves to female victims of sexual assault. The focus of the story is Yvonne’s experience, so that the book is more a character study of the self rather than a crime story. Doughty is very vocal about her writing process not being focused on creating a thriller, but instead says:
I thought Apple Tree Yard was a feminist indictment of criminal justice, and an explanation of a middle-aged woman who [whispers] has sex.
Apple Tree Yard is an unconventional approach to an everyday issue. Violence against women – especially sexual violence – has been catalogued as a global epidemic by the World Health Organisation. However, we still have a long way to go erasing sexual violence from the world. The first step would be to acknowledge that there is not a defined sexual assault victim. The second one, which Doughty clearly denounces in her book, is that victims face an invisible structural violence once they denounce their rapists to the police, where their lives are exposed and all their acts judged. Books like Apple Tree Yard take the best of crime fiction and denounce the ills of society while offering us a space to reflect on our gender prejudices and what we have told to take an cast-iron truths.
BBC1 released a limited series adapting the book with the talented Emily Watson as Yvonne and Ben Chaplin as Mark. See the trailer here:
Louise Doughty (1963) is a British novelist, jouranlist and playwright. She attended Leeds University and the University of East Anglia, where she did the MA in Creative Writing course with Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter. She has worked for the BCC, The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, The Mail on Sunday, and is a juror on the Booker Prize. Her sixth novel Apple Tree Yard earned her critical acclaim, and has been translated into 28 languages.