ATLANTIC, £12.99 Order for £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Thief, By Maureen Gibbon

A treat both horrific and thoughtful

This is a short, shocking novel which grips from the first page. It is the story of a relationship between Suzanne, a young woman still healing from a rape by a friend's brother, and her would-be lover, the ironically named Alpha.

The problem is that this prospective boyfriend is a convicted rapist.

Suzanne meets Alpha through a small ad and is compulsively attracted to him and his desire to make amends. The way he takes over her life drives the narrative but the questions Maureen Gibbon raises about abuse, attraction and damage – the highly charged emotions between the rapist and the raped – are so subtly explored as to make the reader want to complete the novel in one sitting.

Suzanne is a teacher who has fled the city for the countryside to find a way of coming to terms with her experience. No hermit, she seeks out men but always those with dark hair, because "my rapist was blond".

Can perpetrator and victim save each other? This is the underlying question. Although the book has a dark tone, there are moments of humour. Through another small ad, Suzanne meets a cowboy with a broken leg with whom she falls immediately in love. Gibbon manages to make this quasi-relationship amusing but at the same time alludes to a female tendency to plunge into amorous fantasy with a line of unsuitable men.

The desire for the hoodlum and consequent guilt is a recurring theme. What makes the book so impressive is the way the central character has insight into her own fury, hurt and sexual guilt. Is she partly responsible for her own rape, and is this why she has to get close to someone else's rapist? The novel is so absorbing because the protagonist has a measure of psychological insight. She knows the reasons for her attraction to dangerous men but she can't stop herself going there.

There is another man who offers a shadowy hope. Suzanne is renting her deserted house from the 70-year-old Merle, who gently welcomes her to stay in his place. He is the good father-figure who could also double as a potential lover. His character is not fleshed out but he is there at the fringes of the story, a presence who might repair the damaged Suzanne. However, there is no happy end. Rather, this is a disturbing exploration of sexual degradation and the way it corrodes a woman's life.

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