Shortly after finishing A Suitable Lie, I’m googling domestic abuse. I find that I’m doing exactly what Michael J Malone had in mind for his readers: I come across an article in which he reveals that he wrote the psychological thriller to give voice to male victims of domestic abuse, having met plenty of men with that experience. This is an issue that is not taken seriously in society, probably because it calls into account our notions of masculinity, and also because some people believe that giving it focus demeans the women who still constitue the majority of domestic abuse victims. There is a scene in Malone’s book in which the protagonist, Andy, has finally opened up about his abuse to a female colleague, herself a recovering victim. Andy is persuaded to ring a refuge but they assume he is a sick prankster. Sheila, the colleague, realises why:
She sees abused women every single day of her life. You’re the root cause of every catastrophe that woman has ever experienced or heard.
A Suitable Lie is constructed extremely carefully to set the record straight, and to make the point that male victims deserve to be heard and that this should not be at the expense of female victims. To be honest, Malone literally uses every trick in the book. It is sometimes suggested that male victims are wimps, so Malone constructs Andy as a tall ex-rugby player who is happy to provide a punch or two as long as the target is another male. Andy is naturally stoic but loving, obviously competent and snarky at colleagues who may or may not deserve it. He has borne the heartbreak of having his beloved wife die in childbirth, but, until he meets Anna, he does not live life in the shadows. And of course, Andy’s story is how for a while he tries to persuade himself that moving into those shadows is entirely reasonable: the ‘suitable lie’, and how he recognises that this cannot continue.
And Malone knows that we know (hey, we’ve read the blurb on the back cover) that this relationship with Anna is doomed before it starts, so he provides us with some fairly obvious foreshadowing. When Andy’s at A&E, having had his nose broken on his wedding night, he none the less has little sympathy for another casualty:
I was almost beginning to feel sorry for him until he mentioned the beating he took from his wife. At that point my sympathy changed. The situation seemed almost laughable.
We as readers nod to ourselves, knowingly.
Through Andy’s relationships with his sons, brother and friends, Malone explores different types of masculinity. In case we miss it, Malone spells it out at one point, but he does so by letting Andy describe his own battles and though we know we are being guided along a particular path it is done so beautifully that we can hardly mind.
It’s worth pointing out that Andy’s escape from Anna does not happen because of help from the authorities but because elements within Anna’s character make it possible (as do the people around Andy who love him and trust him). That’s important because it seems to be consistent with the real life experiences of victims who, so far, can’t count on the cavalry: an incident where Anna tries to frame Andy for abuse is especially thought provoking.
I’ve so far described the book as though it is some kind of didactic polemic (a bit like Eliyahu Goldratt’s management-theory-textbook-cum-thriller, The Goal), but although I do think we’re aware of the care that Malone takes in telling the story, the story itself is enhanced rather than lessened by this. The result is a novel that draws us in and won’t let go. It’s difficult, unnerving, unputdownable and simultaneously impossibly sad and yet at the same time hopeful. If the darkness of the subject matter puts you off, can I urge you to at least read the Guardian article previously mentioned. But if you can, read the book. I promise you it will stay with you.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.
[…] Song of Isolation by Michael Malone shares many characteristics with his previous novel A Suitable Lie. Both take different perspectives on harrowing subjects, both are incredibly sad and in both cases […]
Richard, thank you for a beautifully considered review – much appreciated.