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Review: Apple Tree Yard, By Louise Doughty

Piercing and potent? Guilty as charged

Louise Doughty has never steered clear of controversial or harrowing subjects. Her last novel, the Costa shortlisted and Orange longlisted Whatever You Love followed the downward trajectory of a woman's life as she simultaneously faced the death of her daughter and divorce.

That a plummeting spiral is again involved in her seventh novel is evident from the prologue, in which the female protagonist and first-person narrator, in court on a major charge, realises that she is doomed. Throughout, she refers to a second-person “you”, her co-accused, whom she loves. And yet, she also lets slip that her husband is kind and supportive. Welcome to Louise Doughty's world in which individuals are complex and fallible.

The story then shifts back in time. Our protagonist, Yvonne, is a high-achieving geneticist, happily married, with two children. She has had traumas – she lost her mother to suicide at the age of eight; her son is bipolar – but she copes, as modern women must. And then, one day, she does something reckless and potentially dangerous. To say she is subsequently sucked into a thrilling and risky situation would be far too passive. Yvonne walks in willingly.

Doughty, like Zoë Heller, Rachel Cusk and Tessa Hadley, drops sharp, shiver-inducing insights, like winter raindrops, on every page. Yvonne's feelings after a first sexual encounter will be recognisable to most: the high tempered with trepidation; the disappointment and feeling of having been used followed by the surge of euphoria when contact is re-established. The story is compelling, but Doughty makes sure that we're enthralled by teasing us with tantalising glimpses of future events: “I do find out what your wife looks like eventually ...”; “in 18 months' time, I would discover that his blood group was O Positive.”

Her writing is piercing and potent, overpowering emotions captured in sharp, pithy phrases. For all the tachy- cardia-inducing detail of the plot, Doughty's view is broad, steeping the story in authenticity. She provides convincing examples of the effects of trauma, such as the atmosphere after a vitriolic outburst at a middle-class dinner party: “ugly and baffled silence ... thick in the yellow room”; and describes the larger world, such as a stranger's personal drama on the street. The court scene is one of the best I've ever read, the suspense and tension building to a taut peak.

A major theme is how we build up illusions about people we don't know, and fall for our ideal rather than the individual. Others include the way female victims are treated by the criminal law system, the sly manipulation of juries, and the way a series of facts can be arranged and interpreted in a variety of ways, all telling different narratives. Riveting.