Book Review: The Golden Rule, Amanda Craig

There are people who read out of necessity, and people who read out of love. Hannah was one of the latter, and when she found a book she liked she sank into it as if into another world. Voices, music, pneumatic drills all became inaudible; she was the kind of child who would go off in break times not to play or talk but to read. It was the annoyance of her life that it was impossible to walk while reading, and that she needed to sleep or eat.”

Amanda Craig, like her narrator Hannah, is clearly an avid bibliophile and her novel, The Golden Rule – which was longlisted for but did not reach the shortlist of the Women’s Prize this year – references and alludes to a range of fiction. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Rosemary Manning’s Green Smoke are massively prominent; a range of modern authors populate its pages; Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train is explicitly cited as an obvious influence; Beauty and the Beast is lurking in the background and other myths.

And this should for me have been a seller, but the execution of the premise and the books left me just a little cold.

Anyway, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

The novel opens with Hannah rushing for a train from London to Cornwall in order to see her mother before she dies – with startling prescience, every nurse seems to be able to predict that the end will come that day! Hannah has left behind her young daughter Maisie and ex-husband Jake, whose refusal to look after their child in this family emergency is indicative of the tension between them. Whilst on the journey, Hannah is beckoned to the first class carriage by the enigmatic and magnetic Jinni.

Both Hannah and Jinni are in the throes of divorce; both are (or claim to be) victims of domestic violence; both claim that it would be easier to be a widow…. and with complete improbability Jinni persuades Hannah to swap murders and kill her husband, Con Code, in exchange for Jinni killing Jake. As per, Highsmith and Hitchcock. And whilst that is preposterous, I could accept it in a different style of novel – but there is so much here, beyond the literary, to anchor it into a very real world of Brexit and domestic violence and poverty that it becomes problematic. Could I see that conversation happening? Of course. Could I see the idea being raised? Even being tentatively agreed to and a plan sketched out? Yes. Could I imagine anyone in the world taking any real step to execute the plan? No. Not for a moment.

And yet Hannah does.

She had intended to bury herself in Persuasion but instead found herself in quite a different story, a vulgar and brutal thriller of the kind she avoided when she had any time to read at all.

She goes so far as to accept a taser from Jinni – Chekov’s taser? – and to approach their decrepit, mouldering home and to confront the shambling, drunk wreck of the man who lives there. All whilst reeling from the impact of her mother’s death. Before she collapses and faints.

By a not-terribly-imaginative twist, the man whom Hannah confronts and who introduces himself to us and Hannah as “Stan”, is one and the same person as the “Con” whom she has agreed to kill – because his real name is Constantine. And the opportunity passes – that is until Hannah returns to Cornwall for her mother’s funeral and the Summer vacation, a vacation in which she starts to work with Stan, cleaning his house prior to its sale, and finds that it is much harder to kill a man whom you know.

The attempts at murder are a little like something out of Midsomer Murders, and are equally far-fetched. More fantasy than conspiracy perhaps. And these sections of the novel I found deeply unconvincing.

What I did love, though, was the descriptions of nature, of Cornwall and of the garden of End Point, the woods, the coast. This was wonderful and vivid and full of warmth and glory. Hannah’s extended family were also wonderfully crafted: Loveday, Morwenna, the cousins…. I wished that Craig could have kept the novel in that locale, focussing on the growing friendship between Hannah and Stan, paring away all the rest, including the absurd murder-pact.

But there was a lot more that interrupted and broke the flow of the novel: Craig uses her characters as a mouthpiece for views about Brexit (which gave it a strangely out-of-date feel), about the value of computer games and the games industry, about the wisdom of using literature as a model for real life; about wealth and class and about men.

Hannah, having escaped the plight of her mother’s working class life in Cornwall by going to University, marrying the rich and entitled Jake and embarking on a career in advertising before starting a family, seems well placed to pass judgment on all three aspects – wealth, class and men. And she finds all three lacking – and Craig takes long and slightly awkward and uncomfortable swathes of the novel to give vent to her stereotypes of and vehement prejudice against all three. They seem irredeemable to Hannah and her negativity – understandable perhaps after her experiences of coercive control from Jake and appalling sexual harassment in her work place – was draining and actually made me feel rather defensive. Did Hannah not realise that her attitude to men was just as misandristic and their was misogynistic? Did Craig? Was it satirical or ironic or not? It was rather hard to tell how to read comments like “it was astonishing that more husbands were not murdered by their wives”.

I also balked at the way that the novel almost fetishes money and we are often lambasted with comments like

Divorce may start with the failure of love, but in the end, it is always about money.

Unlike the wives of rich men, she could not force her husband to give her alimony once they were divorced…To those who have shall be given: but to those who have not shall be taken away.

And the conclusion of the novel seems to wrap everything up so terribly neatly and tidily, again fetishising money as a cure-all for all Hannah’s challenges. I’d have liked Hannah to have learnt something about wealth – that it is not the panacea she seems to think it is – in the same way that Stan taught her something about men and learning to trust.

I found this a really frustrating read. The glimpses of great writing was enough to keep me interested, but that was despite the lengthy passages that lost my engagement and took me out of the book. There

My favourite sections, apart from the depictions of Cornwall, include

  • the Sponge’s party, catered for by Morwenna at which Hannah waits, in which Hannah’s in-laws attend as guests
  • the family’s eventual rallying around Hannah against Jake, as both Jake’s family, the titled Evenlodes, and Hannah’s present a united front against domestic violence as it transcends class and family ties

I believe Craig tends to write interconnected novels, letting minor characters in one novel emerge as main characters in another… at this point, I am not convinced that I am interested enough to delve back into that world… This one at least seemed to be trying to deal with too many topics at the expense of plot and characterisation and the language.

Overall:

Characters:

Plot / Pace:

Worldbuilding:

Structure:

Language:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little Brown Books

Date: March 6th 2020

Available: Amazon, Little Brown Books

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