BEST SERVED COLD

Au­thor’s de­but novel about do­mes­tic abuse be­comes psy­cho­log­i­cal crime thriller

Windsor Star - - BOOKS - JAMIE PORT­MAN

The Exes’ Re­venge Jo Jake­man Vik­ing/Pen­guin Canada

LON­DON “We never speak ill of the dead,” novelist Jo Jake­man muses. But is that al­ways the case? Her de­but thriller, The Exes’ Re­venge, be­gins with the fu­neral of a man named Phillip Rochester. His es­tranged wife, Imo­gen, is in the con­gre­ga­tion — de­voutly pray­ing that he will rot in hell.

The de­ceased’s ex-wife, Ruby, is there as well. Also in at­ten­dance is his girl­friend, Naomi, her mas­cara smudged by tears that are def­i­nitely not for him.

And they all share the sat­is­fac­tion that Phillip Rochester got the death he de­served.

“The idea of the fu­neral came to me one night when I couldn’t sleep,” Jake­man says over cof­fee in Lon­don. “I’d been to two fu­ner­als in the space of a few months, so I guess I had them on my mind.” But then, this weird ques­tion was bur­row­ing its way to the fore. “What if you couldn’t find any­thing good to say about the de­ceased?” That planted the germ for a roller-coaster of a thriller that sets the stage with that riv­et­ing scene at the cre­ma­to­rium and then moves back 22 days to be­gin a count­down to the fu­neral of a mon­ster and to the cir­cum­stances lead­ing up to it. “Do­mes­tic abuse is a hor­ri­ble sub­ject,” Jake­man says.

“But Phillip isn’t in­spired by a spe­cific per­son. He’s the em­bod­i­ment of what would scare me.” And in the novel he’s likely to scare a lot of peo­ple. Phillip is a bru­tal, self-ab­sorbed, con­trol­ling and dan­ger­ously ma­nip­u­la­tive. Fur­ther­more, Phillip’s vic­tims can’t turn to the po­lice for help be­cause he, him­self, is a po­lice­man and a re­spected pil­lar of the com­mu­nity. The women he has bru­tal­ized doubt that any­one will lis­ten to them, and they fear his re­tal­i­a­tion.

Her novel has now been sold to pub­lish­ers in eight coun­tries, and Jake­man finds her­self some­thing of a suc­cess story in her 40s. “I just re­ceived the cover for the Hun­gar­ian edi­tion,” she laughs in­cred­u­lously. “Who would have thought?”

When she started work on The Exes’ Re­venge, she didn’t know what would hap­pen. She ini­tially saw it as a way of ful­fill­ing a life­long am­bi­tion to be­come a writer. She also found it pro­vided stress re­lief in help­ing her deal with the re­cur­ring night­mare of chronic fa­tigue syn­drome.

Jake­man, hap­pily mar­ried for 17 years with twin boys, has no per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of abuse. “But I do have friends and close fam­ily mem­bers who have been through it,” she says.

“Af­ter the book came out (in the U.K.), one woman mes­saged me say­ing that Imo­gen’s sit­u­a­tion re­minded her of the re­la­tion­ship she’d been in. It just moved me to tears that I could have af­fected some­one like that.” Jake­man’s on­line re­search had proved an eye-opener. “There was one web­site that asked — are you a vic­tim of do­mes­tic abuse? At the end it gave in­struc­tions about how to clear your in­ter­net browser so your part­ner wouldn’t know you’d vis­ited the web­site. That shocked me, and so did the rev­e­la­tion that re­ports of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence go up dur­ing sport­ing events.”

The novel’s main fo­cus is on Imo­gen Rochester and her des­per­ate ef­forts to se­cure a di­vorce from a hus­band who con­tin­ues to be a daily threat to her. In re­tal­i­a­tion against her re­solve, he places her in an im­pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion: If she doesn’t get out of the fam­ily home in two weeks, he’ll take their son away from her — per­ma­nently. This is when Imo­gen — “com­pli­ant, ac­cept­ing down­trod­den Imo­gen” — snaps. When Phillip charges un­in­vited into the house one evening ready to be vi­o­lent, he ac­ci­den­tally falls down­stairs. And Imo­gen sum­mons enough courage to lock him in their sound­proofed cel­lar.

“I’m al­ways look­ing out for my boys,” Jake­man says. And you can hear the note of de­fi­ance in her voice when she says she would go to any lengths to pro­tect them. So she un­der­stands where Imo­gen is com­ing from when she chains her es­tranged hus­band to a ra­di­a­tor in the base­ment and ends up join­ing forces with exwife Ruby and phys­i­cally abused girl­friend Naomi in an ef­fort to find a per­ma­nent way of deal­ing with Phillip. Mean­while, Phillip is by no means done with them. He still has nasty tricks up his sleeve — as the three women learn to their re­gret. “I didn’t set out to write a psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller,” Jake­man says. “I ini­tially saw it sim­ply as fic­tion, and then saw it as ‘do­mes­tic noir.’” In fact when her agent sug­gested it was a crime novel, Jake­man re­sisted.

“Are you sure it’s crime?” she protested.

“Jo — it’s against the law to lock some­body in the cel­lar,” the agent replied firmly.

Jake­man laughs in telling this story, and she con­cedes that mo­ments of dark hu­mour oc­ca­sion­ally show up in the course of the nar­ra­tive. It was sheer mis­chievous­ness that led her to give the ar­ro­gant Phillip the sur­name of “Rochester.” It’s her way of tak­ing a poke at 19th-cen­tury fic­tional males like Rochester in Jane Eyre and Darcy in Pride and Prej­u­dice. “Those guys are nar­cis­sists — proud and en­ti­tled!” she says. Jake­man is con­vinced her bat­tles against chronic fa­tigue syn­drome are now a thing of the past. “There were days when I could barely get off the sofa or climb the stairs to bed, she re­mem­bers. “That seems a mil­lion years ago now. I’ve learned that I’m fine as long as I man­age my­self.”

The dis­ci­pline of writ­ing fic­tion has been a fur­ther help.

“I have a rou­tine. I drop the kids off at school, have a cof­fee and am at my desk by 10. I’m very lucky be­cause I re­al­ize how bad it was 12 or 13 years ago.

“Even though I’m so much bet­ter now, I don’t think I could take on a 9-to-5, Mon­day-to-Fri­day job. With writ­ing, I’m in con­trol.” Then she grins.

“I mean — how many jobs can you do in your py­ja­mas when you have to?”

OL­LIE GROVE

“The idea of the fu­neral came to me one night when I couldn’t sleep,” Jo Jake­man, who used to suf­fer from chronic fa­tigue syn­drome, says of her de­but novel.

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