Who says you can’t speak ill of the dead?
Author’s debut novel about domestic abuse becomes psychological crime thriller
The Exes’ Revenge Jo Jakeman Viking/Penguin Canada
“We never speak ill of the LONDON 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 “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?”
“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.