I was so excited to receive a preview copy of this literary thriller, which is a murder mystery, but is firmly focused on domestic abuse. This book’s exploration into forms of abuse is very timely, since it is only recently that coercive control and more psychological domestic abuse became a crime in its own right. In 2015 we became the first country in the world to make coercive control illegal and punishable by up to five years in prison. Sadly this was too late for me. In the wake of my late husband’s death in 2007 I started a relationship with a man I thought I knew very well; it took four years and a lot of courage to leave in 2012. I was very vulnerable when the relationship started and scared of being of being left, so he could manipulate me into spending money and overlooking behaviour that I would normally challenge. He would distance me from friends and family by creating conflict, or even making passes at them to make things awkward. He eroded my confidence with sly suggestions about my appearance, my clothes and my weight particularly. He would fly into a rage about people disrespecting him, not crediting him with achievements or just questioning his control. He would kick and throw things. I have no doubt, that if I stayed, this situation would have become physically violent. So, for me and anyone this has happened to, it was important that the book showed an authentic experience.
The author splits the novel into two time frames. In one Katie Straw’s body is found in the river at a known suicide spot. DS Whitworth and DC Brooke would be happy to write this one off as a suicide, but the local women’s refuge plead with them to look at it again. They are convinced Katie has been murdered. It doesn’t take long for them to realise that Katie Straw doesn’t exist, she has no official or digital footprint. As DC Brooke observes ‘she isn’t even on Facebook, and everyone is on Facebook‘. Our other narrative takes us back to a different Katie, in her first job since university and living back home with her parents. On a night out she meets Jamie, and although she’s unsure at first she embarks on a relationship with him. We see how this seemingly charming and personable young man manipulates her, controls her and strips her of all support systems.
This novel shines a light on the reality of domestic violence in today’s Britain and doesn’t shy away from showing how bleak a picture it is for people trying to help. Although men are also victims of domestic abuse, figures show more women experience what Katie goes through. Scenes written from within the refuge show the range of abuse – financial, spiritual, emotional, physical, sexual. We see how resident Nasir comes up against assumptions about forced marriage and honour killings. Some forms of abuse are seen as more harmful than others, with Katie herself feeling like an imposter or as if the abuse she’s suffered isn’t real because she wasn’t hit. The novel shows how austerity has affected services and how poverty is keeping women in dangerous situations. Women’s refuges are a safety net that’s desperately needed, and the author shows how even this service is so short of funds it is failing women and turning them away. Domestic violence and murder figures rise in times of recession, not because people argue more, but because there is simply nowhere to go. In a choice between being homeless and being abused, many choose the latter, especially where children are involved.
The author shows how an abuser can ‘love bomb’ their partner at first, dialling up the charm and romance in order to catch them off guard. Her attention to detail is incredible, and the writing beautifully poignant.
‘She learns to name the demon. To understand that just as cities can fall, without a shot being fired, a woman can relinquish herself piece by piece.’
This sentence shows beautifully how a woman starts to blame herself. In the face of someone’s manipulation, control and volatility it becomes important to make concessions, to pick your battles, to let some things go. The line made in the sand is breached so often, it seems easier to stop creating them. Eventually, the other person exerts total control and you wonder how you got here but the answer is like this, piece by piece. In her portrayal of DS Whitworth, the author shows us how easy it can be for cases like this to be brushed under the carpet. Investigating abuse is messy because it’s dealing with people’s relationships. I also think there’s an element of switching off to abuse, because it’s too ugly to take on board. When I escaped my relationship there were some friends who would neutralise my version of events with phrases like ‘everyone argues’ and ‘it’s best to be apart if you’re going to hurt each other’. This would incense me and I lost some friends because once I’d found the courage to leave there was no way I was going to gloss over what had happened. I wanted to speak my truth. Whitworth clearly wants to walk away from this and he represents a prevailing attitude about abuse that stops the sheer magnitude of the problem being addressed. Two unsure, and slightly squeamish men are forced to delve into something that’s women’s private business. They’re sympathetic to the terrible stories they hear at the refuge, and each have their strengths. However, Whitworth dislikes dealing with the passionate and headstrong manager of the centre Val Redwood. The subject seems to scare him.
Yet, the way to continue controlling someone is to control how other people see them. Staging someone’s suicide is the ultimate silencer, not only is the witness dead but everyone thinks she was unstable. There must have been something wrong with her Family and friends were told I was uncontrollable, difficult, too involved with my family and friends and not fully in the relationship. I even started to wonder if he was right. Maybe I was overreacting. Maybe all relationships were like this. Thankfully, I had a letter, written in his own hand telling me that I was ‘too much’ for him, I wouldn’t be controlled, didn’t toe the line. In an attempt to knock my confidence going forward he told me I would never find someone to take on my disability (MS), that he found it difficult to accept and off-putting; he couldn’t find me attractive. The letter would bring me back to reality. In every sentence it screamed ‘I can’t control you’. I found it he did this to his first wife, and his last girlfriend too. He left behind a box of old cards and letters full of sentences like: I’m so sorry, I’ll try harder, I’m sorry I’m so difficult to get along with, I’ll be a better wife, I’m sorry I don’t make you happy, I’m so sorry.
The suspense is absolutely heart-stopping. My hopeful nature, and probably my past experience, would have loved an ending where all the loose ends are tied up neatly. However, life isn’t like that. The end is abrupt and a bit brutal. We might learn the truth, but nothing is resolved; to paraphrase Moor’s final words -it’s still fucking raining. I said at the beginning that above all, the book had to be authentic and I guess the unexpected ending fits with that. This is an incredibly impressive debut that is original, well-researched and painfully true to experience.