Shorthand tags used to denote different subgenres are common in publishing these days. Among the many labels there is tartan noir, tart noir, Scandi lit, cli-fi, clit lit, lad lit and even schtick lit. A fairly recent newcomer is domestic noir, a work of psychological suspense set in and around the confines of home that plays around with the mental and emotional instability of its protagonists. Kim Lock’s second novel is billed as representative of this type of kitchen-sink thriller, of which Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl are two of the better-known examples. Like I Can Love, however, is not so much a whodunnit as a whydunnit.
When Jenna Rudolph, 26, commits suicide in the bathtub, she leaves behind a raft of unanswered questions, and the book explores the motivations that led to her death. Everyone plays the blame game but culpability is widely, albeit unevenly distributed to those left behind. Jenna’s best friend, Fairlie Winter, is lost in a fog of self-pitying bewilderment. The two had been estranged for a while, their once close relationship languishing after Jenna married and had a child — Fairlie blames Jenna’s husband, Ark, for coaxing her friend away from her.
Lock’s narrative, evenly split into alternate “then” and “now” chapters, charts the events that preceded and followed the discovery in the bathroom. Eventually, a letter and a key — conveniently discovered — help Fairlie unspool the tightly wound ball of secrets that Jenna held close to her chest. Despite their stark physical and temperamental differences (Fairlie is black, pudgy and easygoing; Jenna, white, thin and highly strung), their friendship weathered many trials until that most cliched disruption of all — a man — entered the scene.
One of the tenets of these psychological dramas is that the reader is privy to certain information withheld from its lead characters, and so even though Ark’s oily charms seduced Jenna, we soon learn he’s the quintessential golden boy whose shiny exterior hides a slimy core. From an affluent background, privately educated and heir to a thriving vineyard business, Ark is enamoured of the idea of using Jenna as a bauble to offset his success but his manipulations and controlling personality gradually bleed through his blandly inoffensive shell, even though for Jenna he was initially “an analgesic, a penance and an offering, and she accepted it with welcome greed”.
There’s also a parallel plot involving decades-old decisions made by Jenna’s mother, Evelyn, who remains unseen until the end but whose presence is felt throughout via a series of letters to her daughter that Lock releases clumsily in drip-feed fashion to maintain suspense and delay the inevitable bombshell.
Like I Can Love belongs on the commercial rather than literary end of the spectrum in terms of its prose, which is serviceable but does not attempt any technicolour flourishes. Lock is good at creating sympathetic female characters; Fairlie is as likable (and fallible) as Amy in her debut novel about a Darwin-based “army wife” in Peace, Love and Khaki Socks (2013). However, Lock is less skilled at mapping credible plot Like I Can Love By Kim Lock Pan Macmillan, pp336, $29.99 The Light on the Water By Olga Lorenzo Allen & Unwin, pp360, $29.99
Author Kim Lock’s Like I Can Love falls into the category of domestic noir