“Blood Orange” by Harriet Tyce: the consequences of actions

Harriet Tyce draws on her experience of working as a barrister in this gripping but unsavoury debut psychological crime thriller.

Remotivated by the chance to lead her first murder case, Alison intends to have only one drink with work colleagues before returning home to Carl, convenient house-husband and part-time therapist since being made redundant, and six-year old daughter Matilda. It soon becomes clear that, not for the first time, Alison will get horribly drunk and have rough sex with handsome but unpredictable and manipulative lawyer Patrick with whom she has drifted into an adulterous “secret” affair. At first, it is hard to believe how such a dysfunctional, often cringe-making and weak-willed individual in her personal life could possibly be an effective and respective barrister. How has kept his patience with her for so long?

However, as the tale progresses, one begins to develop another perspective. Apart from the fact Alison is paying the bills, Carl often seems something of a control freak, unduly quick to criticise her efforts to be a good mother, even in front of Matilda, or denigrate her efforts at cooking – can it really be as bad as he implies? He seems over-protective of his daughter, keen to monopolise her affections. Is he really trying to undermine Alison’s relationship with her child, even demoralise her to the point of doubting her sanity?

The novel also touches on deeper themes concerning the problems for women seeking to succeed “in a man’s world”, or to hold down a complex job with irregular hours without neglecting their children. Has Alison become a “high-functioning” alcoholic, apparently on the brink of total collapse, because of the training which meant spending time in the pub after work getting on good terms with the senior colleague who could put vital work her way? If she were a drunken, adulterous man, would she “get away” with it more easily?

Reminiscent of “Appletree Yard”, I imagine this being made into a television mini-series. Yet although I understand the critical acclaim and popularity gained with the public, it would have been a better book for me if it had been more subtle, rather than laying on the drama with a trowel in ludicrously exaggerated dollops. When Alison picks her daughter up from school very late, an officious teacher, “a solid barrier of dun-coloured knitwear”, blocks her exit, demanding an instant fine of £20 cash which will increase to £30 if not paid until the next day. Tell me if I am wrong, but I cannot imagine any modern-day school imposing such a penalty. Also, is it likely that Alison would interview her client suspected of murder, not in her office but at a busy restaurant, where the waiter almost pours red wine over her confidential paperwork and the medium steak ordered proves so bloody that it seems the one thing that is apt, if ghoulishly?

Creative writing classes seem to plug the use of a dramatically violent or sinister prologue as a “hook”, but apart from making modern novels seem “formulaic”, in this case it amounts to a spoiler for readers with memories of a past scandal and would have been more effective if presented as one of the twists in the somewhat contrived conclusion. To be more than a smutty romp in the wake of “Fifty Shades of Grey”, this novel needed to have less emphasis on, I quote, “booze”, “shit”, “vomit” and sex, and more character development. It amounts to a simplistic theme in which essentially well-intentioned women rise above their flaws to win out over dominant but irredeemably vile men who deserve to pay with their lives. But what made them so bad, and are there no extenuating factors, as in real life? Also, it may well be that some barristers are drunken and unethical in real life, but this book seems to condone some very ambiguous moral values, quite casually suggesting that “wrong actions” are readily acceptable if taken for the “right” reasons.

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