Review no 160.

Consent, a 2020 novel by Canadian writer Annabel Lyon (best known for her short stories and historical fiction), and book no 3 of my #20booksofsummer, was a book club choice. A relatively short novel, at just over 200 pages, we picked it at random from the Women’s Prize longlist (or nearly at random – the first title out of the hat, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps the House by Cherie Jones, was rejected outright, on the basis that it would be ‘depressing’). Anyway, as predicted, Consent wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs either, but it is extremely good, and not at all the tiresome dissection of issues around #metoo that I had feared from the title. Consent was also longlisted for Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize.

The narrative is focused around two sets of sisters whose narratives eventually intertwine, but despite this description it’s very much literary fiction rather than an airport novel (remember airports?). Saskia and Jenny are identical twins, both beautiful, but very different in character: while Saskia is studious and clean-living, Jenny is stylish, outgoing and hedonistic, with unspecified, longstanding mental health problems that make her impulsive in a way that can be both captivating and dangerous.

Sara and Mattie are different. While Sara is bright, cynical (perhaps through necessity) and devoted to high-end fashion, couture and cosmetics, her younger sister Mattie has an intellectual disability, and a loving, trusting, sunny-natured character (like a stereotype of someone with Down’s Syndrome).

Both Saskia and Sara find themselves making devastating decisions affecting their sisters’ futures, and find their own lives dictated by unhealthy compulsions and mental distress. The story is compulsive, and the writing often heady in evoking an atmosphere of pampered indulgence and lush luxury goods, as well as emotional rawness and grief. Minor niggles were that it is occasionally a little overwritten for my tastes, while the dialogue can sound unnatural at times.

The pace, never slow, picks up as the narrative moves along, and I could hardly put the book down. Despite finding the overall reading experience hugely enjoyable, I felt that this emotionally intelligent tale of guilt, family responsibility, vulnerability and addiction was let down by its bizarre ending, the tone of which jarred, and which pushed the bounds of plausibility.

I like the neat summary of this book in The Guardian‘s online bookshop: “A smart, mature writer’s novel about sex and power in the modern world – as if Deborah Levy wrote Cat Person.” I wish I’d come up with that, though it is a bit reductive, and there’s not all that much sex.

Do note that the book’s inside cover blurb, bizarrely, contains spoilers in the edition that I read (published by Atlantic Books), so I wouldn’t recommend reading that all the way through. I avoid newspaper reviews, but it’s a bit much when you have to avoid the book cover too!

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