Clare Mackintosh’s debut novel, I Let You Go, is being released in North America in a few weeks. While I hadn’t heard about the book prior to reading the description, I’m not surprised that it’s been a hit in the UK pretty much since it’s 2014 release there—I am a bit surprised it hasn’t been released in the US sooner. Though it can be read as a thriller, there are much deeper themes speaking to privilege, emotional and physical abuse, and atonement and forgiveness.
Tragedy strikes in the novel’s prologue as five-year-old Jacob is struck by a speeding car as he’s crossing the street in front of his house, his mother only a few steps behind him. The driver rushes away with only the boy’s traumatized mother as a witness. The narrative then follows the Detective Inspector in charge of the investigation as well as Jenna Gray who is running away from her life and finds a small, seaside Welsh village where she can disappear and start over. The police’s leads quickly dry up and other cases get moved to the top of the pile; it looks like Jacob might fall through the cracks when an anniversary appeal to the public gives them the break they’re looking for and the police arrive on Jenna’s doorstep to arrest her for the hit and run. Moving into the novel’s second half, Jenna’s past is explored and questions begin getting answers—but the answers aren’t easy to stomach.
A lot of the novel chronicles an abusive relationship and that can make for extremely disturbing and uncomfortable reading. At the same time, the way that it is presented—specifically the ways that it’s contrasted with what might be considered a common or average marriage that has issues of its own—is incredibly fascinating and I hope would be eye-opening to those whose privilege blinds them to things like this normally. Thought the novel can be described as a “thriller,” I didn’t find as many of it’s plot twists particularly shocking or unexpected. I believe this is because I come to the text as a woman and so there are cues within it that I am societally trained to pick up on—Jenna’s body language and reactions to certain stimuli from the beginning of the novel speak to me of someone who has suffered physical and emotional abuse. But like so many within the text, it isn’t explicitly stated and so it can easily be overlooked (especially when there are other elements at play that are deliberate red herrings). The contrast of her relationship with her husband to the main inspector—DI Ray Stevens—and his increasingly confusing marriage, put the role that privilege plays, front and center.
Despite having met his wife while they were both going through their police training, after at least fifteen years of marriage and two children, he has become increasingly disconnected from his life at home, the difficult and unpredictable hours of a Detective Inspector playing a large role. His wife having left her job to stay at home with their children while they were young (in part because of how expensive childcare is), he pushes himself at work and often justifies his decisions to sacrifice time with his family using providing for her and their family as an excuse. It is clear from conversations we see between him and his wife as well as between his wife and others (especially other women) that some of the communication issues in their marriage stem from his not listening—or at the very least, not understanding—her reasons for wanting to return to work after years as a housewife (I place the emphasis of the disconnect on him because it’s established early in the novel that she gave up work for primarily practical reasons and not because she didn’t want or desire to be a police officer in the first place). I found his character frustrating as hell because it felt like he was being willfully ignorant. Of course, when contrasted with the first person narration of Jenna’s clearly abusive husband where the manipulation begins as soon as they meet, it becomes clear that Ray is honestly not trying to twist things a certain way; but the line between the two has been drawn and shown for how thin it is and the burden of making sure you don’t fall on the wrong side of the line has been placed on those who are privileged (and it is only when Ray is able to understand and see what he’s been doing that he is able to fit the missing pieces of the case together and view the picture clearly).
Many readers—especially female readers—will probably note the early signs in Ian’s narration of his and Jenna’s relationship, but many—like Jenna—won’t realize what’s going on until it’s “too late.” That chronicle of how the abuse begins—emotionally and with rare flashes of the underlying truth—and then escalates until it becomes physical and undeniable will hopefully enlighten some of the public who immediately jump to “how could she have stayed with him so long” or “why doesn’t she just leave” or even worse, “she’s only got herself to blame” whenever an incident of abuse makes national or international headlines. Jenna’s difficulties as she fights to build a life she can be comfortable in, as she continues to fear that he’s around every corner, are all too real for so many women and abuse victims. Jenna’s journey in the book centers very much on that last one and the blame she feels for things her abuser did—to her and others—because she “let him”—which, of course, stems in large part from the years of emotional abuse she suffered at his hands.
I Let You Go will be available for purchase in the US beginning May 3, 2016.
*This book frequently put me in mind of the Julia Roberts movie Sleeping with the Enemy (which is a pretty great thriller).