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Thriller set mainly around OXFORD

11th April 2024

A Lesson in Cruelty by Harriet Tyce, thriller set mainly around OXFORD.

Thriller set mainly around OXFORD


I have previously read a couple of novels by this author and enjoyed them, which is why I chose to read A Lesson in Cruelty.

Anna is in prison and the novel opens the day before she is due to be released after three years’ incarceration. She is transferred to another cell in preparation for the next day and her old ‘padmate‘ gives her a strong pill so that she can at least sleep on her last night. She soon feels sleepy and befuddled but is dimly aware that another woman – Kelly – takes the second bunk in the cell and she overhears parts of a difficult conversation on a tiny, smuggled-in phone. In the morning Anna wakes to find Kelly has had her throat slit. Anna is concerned that the pill she herself took could have caused her to kill Kelly whilst she was under the influence, and, although the authorities question her on suspicion of murder, she is nevertheless released later that same day. Would that really happen in such a short space of time, I wonder?

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Tom, her legal representative, just happens to spot Anna shortly after her release, as she is waiting out the prison at  the bus stop for her ride to the train station. He observes a small white car mount the pavement and, heading straight for her, it flips her into the air. He is immediately by her side but she insists on no police, no ambulance, even though she might well have concussion. He complies (odd behaviour given her woozy and befuddled state). Instead of continuing on her way to London, he scoops her up and suggests she spends the night at his. Really?

We learn that Anna has been a lawyer but she had her licence to practice withdrawn because of her prison sentence (she was responsible for a devastating accident). She is already in Tom’s house and my sense of disbelief at his lack of appropriate boundaries just continued to grow (clearly an agenda was brewing but it all just seemed so implausible).  Then he suggests she work for him, doing some of the donkey work that faces him everyday as a legal aid solicitor; she does at one point recognise that he is getting ‘over involved‘ in her case but she likes the idea of using her skill set. I was once again left gawping at the lack of his professional boundaries…..

Given their legal backgrounds, they chat about the Magic Circle (an informal term describing the five most prestigious London-headquartered multinational law firms) and, having each worked for one of those firms, both share their experience of the terrible work pressures that are imposed by these companies on their employees. One of the law firms is specifically named in none too flattering terms and I would have thought it was a bit risky to do this 🤷‍♀️ but, given that the author is a former criminal barrister, she hopefully knows what she is doing when it comes to libel. Wouldn’t the publisher be concerned? It also felt like a swipe at the author’s previous profession.

Part way through the book, the story of Anna is dropped in favour of Lucy’s story, who is at Oxford specifically to stalk a maverick law professor, and she does a good job of ingratiating herself with him. Following on from Lucy’s story is the strange story of 2 women, living together, who have each been given a name from Greek mythology to cover their identities – to wit, Scylla and Charybdis (probably a nod to choosing the lesser of two evils). Anna’s story is then picked up again and the strands, of course, eventually come together after a long and jigsaw-puzzle build-up.

This particular “listening’ experience has left me wondering about the nature of the support that authors get from their publisher. It feels like this book – and I am talking about this novel in its audiobook format only – feels like it is perhaps an early manuscript that hasn’t been through the full and final editing process; maybe an early version has been passed in error to the narrator? Could that explain things? There are mistakes: you have an aperitif before dinner, not after; in one conversation a woman talks about her nephew, naming him very clearly and the response from the man is to ask what the boy’s name is… non-sequiturs should be weeded out from the get-go; did I notice a brief mention of Cambridge instead of Oxford?? And there is the potential defamation issue already highlighted above.  There are blocks of storytelling that don’t really gel and flow – for example, the author has worked to get the reader invested in Anna and then Lucy pops up, which left me quite discombobulated.

Early on the author is clearly very keen to hammer home the notion of penal reform, especially when it comes to the sentencing of women.  This is truly admirable, although at times her message is conveyed so passionately that it can overwhelm the narrative a bit: “It’s a small, tight society, this, these women brought together by poverty and addiction, falling through the same cracks. They’re as hollow-eyed and gaunt as the ones Anna saw in prison, shunted in for a few weeks of custody for something petty, the sentence wildly disproportionate to the devastation caused. Nothing learned, no help given for the outside, only a lesson in cruelty”.

Somebody, somewhere has not taken time to go through the text with a fine tooth comb, to ensure a smooth and credible transition between the storylines to create a flowing narrative. It feels very much like a pitch of ideas and plots that haven’t as yet really been honed into a cohesive whole, and I can only think that a really early version of this book – errors and all – have somehow landed in the public domain in audiobook format. The hard copy, in contrast, is garnering a lot of positive reviews because the author is a good writer and storyteller and here she has brought together a lot of interesting and inventive components.

To cap it all the narrator develops a terrible cold part way through. On occasion, she can hardly enunciate without supreme breathing effort, making me, the listener, gulp for air as she labours through the words. That’s not a pleasurable reading experience. When she wasn’t suffering from a very blocked nose, she did a good job. But what was the publisher thinking in putting the audiobook out into the world in this state? Are the pressures in the publishing world such that the narrator could not wait until she had recuperated? Honestly, I despair….

And finally in the Author’s Note: “Michael Howard was wrong. Prison doesn’t work, at least not the way we do it in this country“. Something to ponder at the end of the novel…..

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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Catch the author on Twitter @harriet_tyce and Instagram @harriet_tyce

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