book review: our kind of cruelty

Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall
MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pp.
Published May 8, 2018

This is a love story. Mike’s love story.

Mike Hayes fought his way out of a brutal childhood and into a quiet, if lonely life, before he met Verity Metcalf. V taught him about love, and in return, Mike has dedicated his life to making her happy. He’s found the perfect home, the perfect job, he’s sculpted himself into the physical ideal V has always wanted. He knows they’ll be blissfully happy together.

It doesn’t matter that she hasn’t been returning his emails or phone calls.
It doesn’t matter that she says she’s marrying Angus.

It’s all just part of the secret game they used to play. If Mike watches V closely, he’ll see the signs. If he keeps track of her every move he’ll know just when to come to her rescue…

A spellbinding, darkly twisted novel about desire and obsession, and the complicated lines between truth and perception, Our Kind of Cruelty introduces Araminta Hall, a chilling new voice in psychological suspense.

Not since Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and the unctuous Humbert Humbert have I felt such delight over an unreliable narrator. Like his mid-century predecessor, Mike says and does things so patently wrong that they inspire laughter, until one realizes real men take the same actions in the real world...with real consequences for those around them. At first the relationship between Mike and his (now ex-) girlfriend Verity sounded strange, but consensual. They visited nightclubs and bars, entering separately; once a man starts hitting on Verity, Mike will charge to the rescue at her signal. Mike also undergoes a series of major changes, allegedly at her behest. He works out obsessively, dresses a particular way, changing his diet and even his preferences in a home all to match her tastes.

This dubious introduction colors Verity as a femme fatale—faithful to her mark, yet still manipulative and demanding. As Mark lets slip details of his daily life, however, an entirely different picture emerges. Blackouts after a night of drinking; yelling at well-meaning colleagues; lying about the truth of his relationship with Verity. Each revelation given by accident, his worst offenses are waved off with a thin excuse of rationality. What began as a mystery devolves into a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller as horrifying as Lolita and its inspiration, the Sally Hemings kidnapping.

Hall nimbly toys with reader expectations throughout. In one moment Verity's victimhood is unassailable, only for a strange gesture or reaction to disrupt it and feed Mike's—and perhaps the reader's—belief in a consensual game. This oscillation targets a double-standard deployed against abuse victims when they take their accusations public. Strange behavior and sexual preferences are used as ammunition; symptoms of shock can be twisted into evidence of low cunning. Once the 'game' between Verity and Mike escalates into a situation with legal ramifications, testimony by friends, family, and even Verity herself illuminates a comprehensive truth of events leading up to the trial.

Such objectivity only increases the horror of a man like Mike. His rage and possessiveness feel eerily common, if not also superlative in service to the story. The ease with which one can start to sympathize with his perspective, though—that is genuinely terrifying. A steady revelation of facts does little to ease tension; Mike's insistence on the nature of his games with Verity and the pointed lack of her first-person perspective keeps the question of "What if?" from ever entirely extinguishing. This might not function well as a crisp beach read, given the all-too-recognizable themes of abuse, misogyny, and gaslighting at play. However, those who like their thrillers with a punch of wry commentary will find themselves ensnared in a web of dark humor and dread that conspire to make Our Kind of Cruelty a one-sitting read!


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