JUNE 27, 2018
THE SLIPPERY NATURE of Araminta Hall’s American debut, Our Kind of Cruelty, is established from the very first page with an epigraph chipped from Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea: “One can be too ingenious in trying to search out the truth. Sometimes one must simply respect its veiled face. Of course this is a love story.”
The implication that what follows will also be a love story is both true and misleading, which sets the novel’s tone and identifies its central paradox: “[H]ow do you show someone that what they believe to be true is really not the truth?” This is, essentially, a love story; a story about love. It’s no starry-eyed romance, but a love story in the tradition of Wuthering Heights or Caroline Kepnes’s You, in which love manifests as darker, more obsessive, with lovers prepared to burn down the world that would keep them apart, even if they self-destruct in the process. Or, as the narrator of this book declares: “[S]ometimes two people need each other so much it is worth sacrificing others to make sure they end up together.”
These two people are Mike and V(erity), a young West London couple who spent eight years in a psychologically complex, all-consuming relationship before Mike’s work took him abroad to New York, where the strain of distance and one drunken mistake caused V to end their relationship, soon afterward becoming engaged to another man. This decisively removes any chance Mike has of winning her back. Or does it?
This is dark and thought-provoking psychological suspense, eschewing the typical “he said, she said” structure to instead present an intense single-perspective dive deep into the core of a relationship whose truths have always been veiled. Here, there is only the “he said”: the book opens with Mike sitting in prison after he’s killed a man, reluctantly writing a detailed history of his relationship with V at the request of his barrister. What emerges from this account is a portrait of a relationship with an intricate power dynamic characterized by role playing, sexual exhibitionism, and a deeply rooted choreography of cues, codes, and signals developed between two lovers for communicating undetected by outsiders.
These signals were carefully orchestrated behavioral props for use in the Crave — a bit of performance engineered by V as a lark, mingling danger and violence in a sexually charged ritual in which the couple frequently indulged over the course of their relationship. The Crave always took place in a crowded public space, a nightclub or bar where V would allow a man to buy her a drink and encouraged flirtation while Mike watched from a distance, waiting for V’s signal. As soon as she tugged her silver eagle necklace, he would push through the crowd and angrily confront the man hitting on her, using his extraordinarily muscular body to threaten him until he left, emasculated, and Mike and V would celebrate their triumphant rush by having sex in the nightclub bathroom, V turned on by Mike’s violent potential: “I love seeing how scared they are of you.”
These are the moving parts of their relationship; V setting the stage, calling the shots, Mike watching intently, waiting for his cue to act, intimacy triggered by theatrical heroism and the threat of violence. And as for the men from whom Mike had to “rescue” V, well, both love and war have their share of collateral damage. “We had played enough times to know that the end moments often seem cruel; that for us to get what we want others have to get hurt. If we could have done it another way then no doubt we would have, but there was no other way; cruelty was a necessary part of our game.”
Four months after their split, during which time V rebuffed all of Mike’s attempts to communicate, he emails to tell her he is moving back to London, and she responds warmly, apologizing for her behavior during their breakup, hoping they can renew their friendship when he comes home, and telling him of her engagement to a man called Angus. Although initially stunned, Mike quickly understands that her blithe announcement is both a punishment and a challenge — an opportunity for him to make amends:
Her breezy tone was so far removed from the V whom I knew, that I wondered for a moment if she had been kidnapped and someone else was writing her e-mails, although the much more plausible explanations were that V was not herself, or that she was using her tone to send me a covert message. There were two options at play: Either she had lost her mind with the distress I had caused her at Christmas and jumped into the arms of the nearest fool, or she needed me to pay for what I’d done. This seemed by far the most likely; this was V after all and she would need me to witness my own remorse. It was as if the lines of her e-mail dissolved and behind them were her true words. This was a game, our favorite game. It was obvious that we were beginning a new, more intricate Crave.
V broke up with Mike in response to “the American incident,” an offense Mike committed while overseas, and as he parses out the subtext of what would appear to others to be a casual email, he sees she is offering him reconciliation. Only he knows her well enough to see the coded offer she is making — the chance to redeem himself in their most elaborate Crave yet; an apology in the form of a grand romantic gesture, to rescue V from Angus — just another unworthy man, the latest dupe in a series of dupes.
Is this too difficult a request to make of Mike, a man she has cold-shouldered for months after breaking his heart? (“‘If it’s easy it’s probably not worth having,’ V said to me once, and that made me smile.”) And is she, in fact, asking, or is Mike just seeing what he wants to see, believing that this whole separation has been a test of his resolve, that “V and I were never meant to be apart.” Is he responding to the rules of a game V’s stopped playing? (“‘Everything is a game,’ V used to tell me; ‘only stupid people forget that.’”)
The ambiguity is thick. On the one hand, this is a couple with a long history of using mind games as foreplay. On the other hand, the reader is limited to Mike’s point of view, which is demonstrably unreliable, through his own admissions. But just because we don’t see the messages he sees in V’s words and behaviors doesn’t mean they aren’t there, not in a couple as opaque to outsiders as they were, and as comfortable with manipulation. Hall bats the question back and forth in front of the reader the whole way through: Do we have one unreliable narrator or two? Is this the work of two sociopaths in love or the misinterpretations of one delusional man? Is this Crave or Cray?
Mike is certain of his truth: “I knew what she was doing, it was all fine.”
It’s an intensifying thriller, building momentum as it progresses, bringing Mike’s narrative closer to his crime, keeping the reader guessing as to V’s intentions and the level of her culpability. She may not have a direct voice here, but her power over Mike is clear in his account of their romantic history and his devotion to her, even now.
V is a woman with the kind of entitled confidence found in the young and beautiful who are well aware of their beauty and the power it grants, accustomed to having people bend to their whims. In her personal life, she is impulsive, sexually adventurous, and fond of provocation, using Mike to shock her conservative parents. Professionally, she’s a successful and well-respected figure in the field of artificial intelligence, conditioning machines to be more human, and the persuasive influence she wields at work bleeds into her her relationship with Mike. “It is true to say that the Crave always belonged to V,” and in fact, she controlled every aspect of their relationship. Their compatibility wasn’t a case of two people perfectly matched; it was the result of V shaping Mike into what she desired at the time, even referring to him as “Frankenstein’s monster.” And Mike, who grew up in a foster family after his alcoholic mother was deemed unfit, basked in her attention and gladly adapted to please her (“I like the sense of dedication that has gone into creating me”). Grateful to V for everything, he changed his routines (“V likes me to lift weights and start all my days with a run”), his body (“V sculpted me into what she jokingly called the perfect man and she wasn’t happy until every part of me was as defined as a road map”), as well as his habits, tastes, and manners. One could construct quite a profligate drinking game from the number of times the phrase “V taught me how to…” appears.
For his part, Mike is unusually malleable, a care home kid with anger issues and a history of poor impulse control and acting out in rage, whose own written account exposes periods of blackouts, struggles with social cues and interactions, and disproportionately aggressive responses to small frustrations. V choosing to love him was an unexpected honor; she gave him purpose, a home, and a sense of belonging he’d never had before. He stresses frequently that he and V stand apart from the rabble: “V and I are not like others.” Their love elevates them beyond ordinary expectations, and Mike relishes his role as V’s protector; the “them-against-us” aspect to their games. “‘We make a funny pair,’ she said to me once, ‘you with no parents, me with no siblings. There’s so little of us to go around. We have to keep a tight hold of each other to stop the other from floating away.’” And Mike is determined to hold on tight.
Even after their split, he remains in her thrall. Like a dog trained to fight, he responds to one master and he’s in the ring for her whether she’s still commanding him or not. Conditioned by the Crave to observe her down to her most unconscious gestures, even the phrasings he uses are suggestive of a canine presence: “I would wait, my eyes never leaving her, my body ready to pounce at all times.” He’s eager to please, dead loyal, and trained to obey V’s subtext and cues even when they don’t line up with the facade she’s presenting to the rest of the world, which sustains the uncertainty throughout, Mike “knowing” what V would want, even when he suspects she may have gotten lost in her own game.
Getting Gillian Flynn to blurb this is a perfect choice. In many ways, Hall’s is a similar take on Gone Girl’s toxic relationship theme; a lack of honest communication and an uneven power dynamic are contributing factors to the relationship’s struggles, with a special emphasis upon a man’s frustration with the inscrutability of a woman. There’s even a deliberate echo to Gone Girl in a scene where Mike reveals he loves to watch V sleep and fantasizes about uncoiling her brain, both to understand her and to direct her thoughts toward him. The attractive vulnerability of a sleeping woman, the impulse toward violence as a tool for understanding; it’s the refuge of an emasculated man in thrall to a woman who outmatches him.
Despite the nod, this is no Gone Girl rip-off, and it actually becomes a thoughtful response to Gone Girl and all of the subsequent authors of psychological suspense homesteading on Gillian Flynn’s land. There has been a glut of post-G.G. novels in which manipulative women mastermind intricate webs of deception, so much so that it has almost become a cliché of the genre. Hall upends the reader’s expectations by removing direct access to the female character, and whenever V appears to be innocent, doubt is automatically triggered in the reader by these ingrained genre presumptions about gender and power.
This all gets thrown for a loop in the third-act courtroom scene, where Gone Girl gives way to a modern-day The Scarlet Letter, and the truth, previously twisted through Mike’s flawed perspective, is now professionally twisted through a legal wringer and the scope of the story becomes larger than a domestic dispute, much more insidious and timely.
Of course this is a love story, but it is a love story built upon emotional extremes:
They say that hate is the closest emotion to love. And passion certainly exists in two forms. The passion of sex and the passion of arguments. For V and I one would merge into the other all the time. One second shouting, the next fucking. We needed each other in a way that sometimes made me feel like it wouldn’t be enough until we’d consumed each other. I read a story once about a Russian man who ate his lovers and I sort of understand why he did it. Imagine your lover actually traveling through your blood, feeding your muscles, informing your brain. Some would see that as the basest level of cruelty, others as an act of love. Ultimately, that is what it means to Crave.
Love, cruelty, passion, and lies, manipulated to serve the theatrics of court and Crave alike, where the truth looks different depending on what you have to protect, what you have to lose, and whether you’re getting paid. To reenlist Murdoch’s epigraph, “Sometimes one must simply respect its veiled face.”