After The Luminaries I wanted something quick and easy, if you know what I mean, as a mental palate cleanser. In fact Apple Tree Yard fit the bill extremely well, but it was also a rather intriguing novel with more depth than I anticipated.
Yvonne Carmichael is a successful geneticist who happens one winter day to be reporting to a Standing Committee at the House of Lords. She is fifty-two, married to another scientist, with two grown children, and wearing new boots. As she leaves the building, she happens to fall in with a man, a complete stranger she glimpsed that morning in the café, and there is a fierce and unexpected connection between them. He starts a conversation with her and, as if on a whim, invites her to look at the Crypt Chapel, a place only members may enter. Once alone there, they have sex in a cupboard where cleaning supplies are stored. The balance of the encounter is delicate – for Yvonne, to whom such things do not happen, there is a devastating erotic charge, but for the reader, those cleaning supplies hint at a sordid, furtive shadow over the meeting, a reminder that framed differently, this could look ridiculous at best.
Yvonne assumes that it was a one off, and is relieved, and then sorry. She cannot quite prevent herself from walking around the area when she is next in London. Her marriage is solid, but dull; Guy seems so wrapped up in his own concerns he is unconnected to her, and their life together has been flawed by an affair he had many years ago and an emotionally unstable son. When she meets her mystery stranger again, she moves into an affair without too many doubts, convinced she can do this without hurting anybody.
However, we know differently. The novel opens with a prologue set in a law court where Yvonne is being cross-questioned and her lover is her co-accused. We don’t know the charge yet, but we do know that things are going to go badly awry. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, because what happens is surprising and unguessable (I certainly didn’t see it coming). But suffice to say that we know from the start that public humiliation and shame await Yvonne and that while she will try to the bitter end to keep the relationship a secret, she won’t be able to.
This is one of those ‘what if’ novels that for me have a bit less punch than the ones where you see how the consequences could happen to anyone. I kind of felt that Yvonne had enough on her plate with risky sex with a random stranger. The subsequent calamities that befall her certainly raise the stakes of the narrative but seemed to me properly awful and unlikely bad luck. That being said, this is a very well-written book, beautifully paced, well characterised and with a pull like a ten-ton magnet. I most certainly wanted to know what happened next, even though I already knew what would happen ultimately. And of course what would happen ultimately would be that the woman is punished excessively for having transgressive sexual desires. That seems inevitable in works of fiction, even though sexuality is one of our most troublesome, unruly and transgressive parts. That’s still something that we don’t yet feel able to be compassionate about – probably because being on the end of someone else’s unruly desires can be extremely painful, so the urge is always to judge harshly.
And this is very much a book about how things look to the outside world. It is very clever in this respect. It’s about the stories we tell ourselves, and how different they need to be to the stories we tell other people. It’s about the way that the framing of a story has a huge influence on how the story is heard. It’s also about gendered stories. The novel suggests that sex remains a different proposition for men and women; women cannot help but wrap it up in attachment, tenderness and love, while for men it’s all about the quantity. That’s the ancient story underlying all the others in Apple Tree Yard. So whilst this is a surprising and unpredictable novel at one level, I don’t think you’ll be at all surprised to know that the moral of the story is: be very careful who you pick up for casual sex.