Apple Tree Yard is Louise Doughty’s 7th novel and, for me, her most successful to date. She gets better with each book. A bold writer, Doughty knows how to tell a good story and never shies away from difficult material. Her last book, Whatever You Love, explored the raw psychology of a mother whose child had been killed in a hit-and-run.
In Apple Tree Yard we watch an extremely successful women’s life spiral out of control. As a result of one impulsive act her status as a well-respected scientist, her long marriage and her relationships with grown-up son and daughter are all under threat.
Highly regarded in the field of genetics, Yvonne Carmichael is used to appearing before Government committees. After one such routine appearance a chance encounter sees her accepting an invitation to take a guided tour around parts of the House of Commons that are out of public view. About the status of her guide Yvonne knows nothing but he’s clearly able to move freely around the Palace of Westminster, and she follows.
Before she has time to consider what is happening to her the stranger leads her into a cupboard off the chapel of St Mary Undercroft. So begins the excitement of risky sex in surprising places. More impulsive meetings follow and Yvonne is soon on an unstoppable trail to her downfall.
But how far will she fall?
You will know from page one that all of this leads Yvonne into court as the book opens with her, the accused, on the witness stand being cross-examined; you won’t know until the last page what really went on.
For the first few chapters you might think that Doughty is has strayed into the land of 50 Shades but that’s what’s so clever about this book - erotica and courtroom drama is all there and expertly done but woven through strong characterisation is intelligent reflection on women’s sexuality and the status of the professional woman in the 21st century. It was no accident that the inciting incident occurs in the same place as that brave act of suffragist Emily Davison, who hid overnight in that same cupboard so that she would be recorded in the 1911 census as being resident in the House of Commons.
As things get worse and Yvonne reflects on her career, marriage and how she is viewed. She recalls a time when the children were young and she regularly cooked Sunday lunch for mother- and sisters-in-law. Every time her husband left the table to change a nappy, “the three of them would practically break into the Hallelujah Chorus. Nobody praised me for all the combining I did, all the juggling. I never asked for praise. I took my own competence for granted as much as anyone else.”
Another serious theme is the way in which we self-mythologise. Through Yvonne’s trial we see how the facts and the veracity of any story depends on how it is told and who is telling it.
Most compelling is the way Doughty shows how an ordinary family functions while containing dark secrets. She shows how easy it is to fall into leading a double life. Indeed, the book is dedicated to, “everyone who walks around knowing the truth to be different.”
Apple Tree Yard is the perfect summer read, but do pack a few more books because you will zip through this one.