‘Coercive control’ is a form of domestic abuse that has started to be taken much more seriously over the past few years, especially since the Serious Crime Act in 2015. It’s not a new thing and there have been many stories and films featuring it over the years. In fact, ‘gaslighting’, when the perpetrator convinces the victim that the abuse is all in their head, takes its name from the 1940 film ‘Gaslight’.
Like many men, I had my suspicions that coercive control was mainly an invention of militant feminism and that, if it happened at all, it happened to weak women who were, to a degree, complicit in their abuse. Since then two separate friends of mine, both strong, confident women, have fallen victim to this sort of relationship. It’s a terrifying problem and people (mainly, but not exclusively, women) need to be aware of the behaviour and its dangers.
This makes Karen King’s latest, The Stranger in my Bed, a timely novel.
Phil and Freya have married after a whirlwind romance. Two years later, the marriage is in trouble with rows that often turn violent. Mind games are being played. But who is the abuser and who is the victim? At this point, though, Phil is involved in a car crash when his brakes are tampered with. He wakes in hospital with no memory of the abuse. All he recalls is the courtship and marriage.
King’s book, then, sets out to tackle several different issues.
- It’s a straightforward whodunit. Who tampered with the brakes (and continues a campaign to harass Phil, breaking into his house and leaving threatening notes in his home office)?
- It’s (as it says on the cover) a psychological thriller. Is Freya really in danger from Phil or is it all in her mind? Or is Freya the abuser?
- It’s a sort of romance. Given the chance to start again, can Phil and Freya rekindle the love that characterised the courtship and honeymoon that Phil remembers or are they doomed to remain in the cycle of abuse?
The story is told in the third person but with chapters from the point of view of different characters. Mainly it’s straightforwardly from Freya’s viewpoint but some chapters are from Phil’s point of view. Phil sees himself as a loving husband. OK, he can lose his temper from time to time, but then his wife, as he puts it “always presses his buttons”. Some of her behaviour (I can’t give examples because of spoilers) goes way beyond what I would consider acceptable in a marriage and I found my sympathies moving to Phil. Karen King’s willingness to forgive the kind of behaviour that would suggest a marriage has already broken down makes me uncomfortable and blurs some of the lines in the book. It certainly doesn’t fit well with the “can they get their marriage back on course” subplot. Surely the marriage is doomed? But, given the structure of many romantic novels, maybe there will be a happy ending after all.
Karen King has a lifetime of writing romance behind her and her writing flows well. All the bits that could be in a romance novel read just as they should. Nice, normal Freya, her handsome sexy husband, their comfortable home, her interesting job. But the ‘psychological thriller’ elements are less comfortable. I felt that there wasn’t quite enough menace for it to work as a thriller. Perhaps that’s what makes coercive control so insidious. It’s very difficult to believe that there can be a real threat lurking in such an apparently ‘normal’ home. Some authors of psychological thrillers introduce a pet animal at this stage – as with the rabbit whose fate gave rise to the expression ‘bunny boiler’ in ‘Fatal Attraction’. Dogs, too, have met grisly ends in plenty of films and books. I have a twisted mind: I miss that sort of peril in a thriller.
In summary, this is a romance author who is tackling an important, and very unromantic, subject. It has meant breaking away from her usual style to explore a new genre and, inevitably, there is some grinding of gears as the drive engages with a whole new terrain. But it’s an important subject and one that her audience probably isn’t that familiar with. It’s well written and carries the reader along and anything that makes people more aware of the issues is to be applauded.