Like I Can Love by Kim Lock
Macmillan Australia RRP: $29.99
It’s been awhile since I’ve read a book I wanted to yell at. Do you know what I mean? The kind of book that has you sitting in bed at 3am, unable to stop reading, and wishing you could grab one of the characters and slap them with the very paperback you’re resting on your knees. Like I Can Love is one of THOSE books, containing some of the most sympathetic and infuriating characters I’ve met in recent reading adventures.
Australian author Kim Lock’s second novel (I reviewed the first here) is a tale of secrets and lies. 26 year old Jenna has the perfect existence – a loving husband, an adorable son and a dream home on a glamorous estate in South Australia’s wine growing region. So, why does she take her own life in the first few pages? Her friends and family are left to unpack the mystery of what was going in Jenna’s life before it ended so tragically.
This is where things get complicated. Before her death, Jenna sent her lifelong best friend, Fairlie, a letter with a key to a storage locker. Fairlie, along with most of Jenna’s family and friends, had been seeing less and less of Jenna, presuming she was too busy with motherhood and money to make time for others. The key starts Fairlie on a search for the truth about Jenna’s childhood, her marriage and some deeply buried secrets involving Fairlie herself.
To say much much more would lead to major spoilers, so I’ll leave the main plotline at that. But I can’t stop without mentioning the reason for my shouting.
So, minor SPOILERS! All is not as it seems in Jenna’s perfect marriage…
Domestic violence is in the news on a daily basis in Australia right now, as politicians and justice advocates seek to improve the rights of victims. We’re often presented with stereotypes, however, of angry men from lower socio-economic communities throwing alcohol-fuelled punches. Jenna’s husband Ark is an abuser, but fits none of the stereotypes. Articulate, educated, upwardly mobile, he is a brilliant example of an aggressive narcissist, who inflicts more damage on his wife with words that he ever could with fists.
Ark tells Jenna how much he loves her and how beautiful she is, over and over. But what begins as flattery soon turns to irrational jealousy if Jenna so much as speaks to another man – waiters, the postman, even passers-by who happen to glance her way are on Ark’s radar. Although Jenna has no intention of flirting, she begins to question herself, wondering whether she DOES have an innate need for attention that leads her to inappropriate behaviour.
Maybe she had flirted with the waiter; he’d been sweet and funny and the meal had been lovely. Had she been single too long and forgotten how to act in a relationship?
Bit by bit, Ark convinces Jenna to quit work; he loves her so much he’s happy for her to put her feet up. He also controls their bank account and makes excuses not to see her friends. He takes their only car to work every day, leaving Jenna at home with their young son. For all of this, he expects her to be grateful. He showers her with gifts and demands she respond to his advances on cue – if she doesn’t, he gets what he wants by force.
The tension in the writing is visceral; as a reader, you feel Jenna’s suffocated desperation as she tries to keep a sense of herself as anything other than Ark’s property.
‘I can’t do this anymore.’
‘Can’t?’ He sounded genuinely puzzled. ‘Can’t do what?’
‘This! I feel like I’m dying, Ark.’
‘Babe, listen to me. You’re sick.’
Fury shot through her. ‘I’m not sick. I’m…I’m…abused.’ […]
He took a step towards her. ‘Jenna, honey. Listen to yourself. Abused?’ He looked scandalised. ‘I’ve never laid a hand on you in anything but love. How insulting for those women who are abused that you could lower our loving relationship to that.’
When Jenna reaches breaking point, lonely, isolated and questioning her own sanity, she asks to see a counsellor. Ark goes with her to the GP and the psychologist. Being the charming, well-respected man he is, he quickly spins their story in his favour and Jenna ends up with a diagnosis of post-natal depression, some medication and very little sympathy.
This example of marriage is cleverly drawn and genuinely enlightening about how influential the people who ‘care’ about you can be if you’re not on your guard. It widens the definition of ‘violence’ and answers all those questions so often thrown at victims of abuse, like ‘Why didn’t she just leave?’
There are elements of romance, melodrama and family saga in this novel. It touches on discussions of intergenerational communication, social stigma and racism. For me, it started a little slowly and I had mixed feelings about some of the minor characters. But this goes straight on my ‘must read’ book list for the subtle intensity of Jenna and Ark’s relationship.