STICKS AND STONES
Jo Jakeman (www.jojakeman.com)
Harvill Secker (www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk)
Imogen Rochester is adapting to life as a single parent. Her ex-husband, Phillip, is not a nice man and Imogen is just glad that he’s no longer in the house with her and their young son, Alastair. Phillip, living in an ultra-modern barn conversion with his new young girlfriend, presents Imogen with an ultimatum: leave the family home in two weeks, or he will fight for custody of their son. Imogen knows that if it came to it, Phillip would win such a battle: she has a history of mental health issues while he is a respected member of the police force. When Phillip pays an unexpected visit, Imogen acts on the spur of the moment and locks him in the basement. Along with his first wife, Ruby, and his new girlfriend, Naomi – both of whom have, like Imogen, suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of Phillip Rochester – she sets out to take advantage of the fact that they now have the upper hand, but Phillip might not be as easy to convince as the three women thought.
Jo Jakeman’s debut novel is a remarkable thing: starting out as a stereotypical domestic psychological thriller, it takes a sudden sinister turn which makes it stand out from the crowd, something new and unforgettable. Told primarily from Imogen’s point of view, it paints Phillip Rochester as a nasty piece of work, a man who treats the women who love him as if they exist solely for his pleasure and entertainment, and who isn’t afraid to use physical violence, or a well-timed cruel remark to inflict as much damage as he can. But when Imogen gets the upper hand, and invites both Naomi and Ruby into her secret, the reader begins to feel uncomfortable: yes, these women are victims, and they deserve their pound of flesh, but doesn’t this approach make them as bad – if not worse – as Phillip himself?
Rochester himself is a master manipulator and, along with the women who have spent time with him, we find ourselves questioning every word that comes out of his mouth. When we see just how devious he is, how much pain and uncertainty he can inflict just by opening his mouth, we begin to feel more comfortable with Imogen’s decision to lock him in the basement. As he attempts to pit the three women against each other, promising to answer questions they have long sought the answers to – who was driving the car that caused the death of Imogen’s first unborn child? Who is Naomi’s mother? – we begin to see him, as the women do, as something less than human. “Sticks and stones will break my bones…”, but from the tongue of Phillip Rochester, words can do just as much damage.
There is a farcical element to the book, the unlikely gathering of the three women in Imogen’s house, Phillip locked in the basement and chained to the radiator, that brings to mind the black comedies of the Ealing era, something akin to The Ladykillers or The Lavender Hill Mob. Jakeman manages to elicit this feeling without relieving the tension, her writing blending harsh reality with black comedy so that the reader finds themselves laughing at the most inappropriate times, only to be brought back down with a thump with the next sentence.
Jakeman’s characters are well-drawn, and feel like people that we might know. Sticks and Stones feels much more accomplished – not to mentioned polished – than a debut novel, and much of this is down to the attention to detail in dealing with her characters. The plot itself is reasonably straightforward, a number of minor twists seeded through the story to keep the pages turning. We learn the outcome in the opening chapter, so it’s less a matter of what happened that keeps us reading as how they managed it.
Dark, funny, gripping, Jo Jakeman’s debut novel introduces a fresh and interesting voice in crime fiction. Breathing new life into a tired old genre, Jakeman shows that pitch perfect characterisation, and the willingness to take a risk – make it a farce, because if your characters are believable, the audience will follow you anywhere – can produce one of the best pieces of crime fiction you’re likely to read. I’m already excited about Jo Jakeman’s next novel. It’s time for you to get excited about Sticks and Stones.