Psychologically as well as physically bruised by a random attack on a city street, a young woman moves to the country with her child only to find that she has not put as much distance between herself and danger as she thought.
Haunted by repetitive images of a dying girl in a wood, Baker’s (A Country Road, a Tree, 2016, etc.) new novel is a story of female response to male threat, boosted by questions of literary expression. The unnamed heroine, author of a successful first novel and living in London with her teacher husband, is assaulted by a stranger as the story opens. Later, partially healed, she moves north with her 3-year-old son to a university town to take up a lectureship in creative writing. The move is stressful in multiple ways, as the woman juggles domestic responsibilities, struggles to keep her marriage together, and tries, as a novice teacher, to handle her students. The students' written work peppers the tale, notably chapters by Nicholas Palmer, a gifted but complicated young man from a wealthy local family, whose autobiographical fiction includes references to the tragic death of a young girl. The woman begins to sense warning signals yet doesn’t take the necessary steps, a factor common to thrillers but also part of Baker’s commentary on the difficulties for women of dealing with encroaching peril. Nevertheless, this conventional setup is at odds with Baker's previous, often outstanding body of work, which is marked by more original portraits of women’s lives and stances. Here, for all the central character’s identifiable dilemmas and the interesting perspective of the "other" literary voices, the story devolves into single-strand plot stereotype, with a psychopath battering down the door and a terrorized woman fleeing for her safety.
Baker's fans will enjoy the crisp descriptive writing and insightful nuances but might find this a limited, relatively predictable showcase for her abilities.