It’s a really strange time and we are all processing #SocialDistancing differently. Friends and colleagues will have noticed my increased presence on Twitter. I am mindlessly checking my email many, many times an hour and perpetuating my underlying anxieties. As a result, I have set myself some digital check out time every day. Sometimes I’m going to spend that time attacking my To Be Read pile. This is a (possibly short) chronicle of what I finish or abandon. Wherever I can, these reviews will be written immediately after finishing the book. These are not measured reflections. They are gut reactions.
Renee Knight. Disclaimer. London: Black Swan. 2015
It is very strange to have a window on a past version of yourself. Before going through a series of life-altering traumas, I used to read thrillers all the time but I generally find them too triggering nowadays. Reading Disclaimer took me back to being a teenager where I lived for the next Kay Scarpetta novel and would not have turned a hair reading a story like this.
My mother bought me Disclaimer about a week after it came out in 2015. We were in a Waterstones on Oxford Street. The salesperson pushed the book really convincingly and Mum felt they deserved the sale. I have carried it around five homes since then. The story follows the interactions between Catherine, a middle-class documentary film maker and a mysterious man, who sends her a copy of a novel that is based on events that actually happened to Catherine. We eventually discover the circumstances of a mysterious death and how it affected Catherine’s home life. It’s an “easy” and compelling read. A classic zeitgeist page turner. There’s a solid plot twist fairly close to the end.
I have a first print of the novel and a little bit of online research suggests that there are a few editing errors. For example, the story jumps between time periods and in a couple of places, chapters are titled with the wrong time period. Overall, I figured out most of what was happening in advance although The Plot Twist (discussed in the spoiler zone below) came as surprise. As I’ve come to realise now I am not immersed in reading every thriller I can get my hands on, there is a lot of glossing over of terrible characterisation and incidental appalling plot information. We spend most of the book horrified by the manipulative actions of one of the two protagonists and their backstory, then all that information is sort of left alone when it’s convenient to move the story on. If you love an airport thriller, I’d check it out. Otherwise, I think there are better versions of this story out there.
This paragraph contains SIGNIFICANT spoilers:
Content note: sexual assault, drug abuse, and suicide.
I have one big concern about this book, which would make me hesitate to casually recommend it to anyone I didn’t know well. Eventually, we learn that the dead man raped Catherine and she has repressed what happened. The most bittersweet but true to life detail of the novel is the acknowledgement that Catherine’s husband is ultimately unfazed that she has been raped when he previously ostracised her for having an affair. He rebuilds their relationship but shows no distress about what she has been through. The assault is introduced clunkily but there is also a fairly refreshing conversation where Catherine reveals the rape to the dead man’s father and he believes her immediately. There is no question of credibility in Catherine’s story, which is very unusual in novels of this kind and I applaud that. However, the “solution” to the father’s earlier revenge plot against Catherine, when he learns what has happened, is for him to die by suicide as a “premeditated atonement”. This final twist is extremely jarring, especially in the context that we know he has stalked one of his former pupils and has gone to extreme lengths to harm Catherine and her family. He a cocaine overdose in her son. He visits him in ICU having reached out to her husband “in distress” about Catherine’s behaviour. Then, it’s all forgotten because he decides to set fire to his house. There is no shame in suicide but there is a problem with using suicide as a form of redemption or as suitable social atonement.
I know that many of the most successful books of this genre exploit sexual assault and abusive relationships (of all kinds) for sensation but this way of linking them up felt especially unsavoury.