Till death do us part: the literary bait-and-switch of Jill Ciment’s The Body in Question

The Body in Question by Jill Ciment

In 2015, the Montreal-born writer Jill Ciment published a novel under the pseudonym A.J. Rich. That book, The Hand That Feeds You, was published under a single name, though it was actually co-written by the acclaimed American short-story writer Amy Hempel.

This may seem like a superfluous observation when it comes to Ciment’s latest novel, 2019’s The Body in Question, published under her own name. But there is a comparison to be made between Hempel’s psychologically incisive, minimalist stories and Ciment’s scorching novel – in terms of style, if not precisely subject matter or approach. That said, The Hand That Feeds You was a departure for both authors in that it was a thriller; many tropes and tactics of that genre – and courtroom novels in particular – remain intact in Ciment’s latest.

In The Body in Question, Ciment also channels the psychological tension of Patricia Highsmith, whose story “The Heroine” forms a key plot point in the novel. Highsmith’s acuity and insight into the fractures that lurk just under the surface of domestic relationships form a key referent for Ciment in telling the story of a fifty-two-year-old photographer who lands on a Florida jury charged with deliberating a particularly disturbing murder trial: a mentally fragile teenager is accused of setting her baby brother on fire for reasons that remain opaque (even, perhaps, to the defendant herself).

During the course of the protracted trial, the jury is sequestered in a seedy highway Econo Lodge. The situation provides the protagonist a welcome respite from her role as caregiver for her terminally ill husband, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist in his eighties. Before long, she has embarked on an extramarital affair with one of her fellow jurors – “one last dalliance before she gets too old.”

Ciment’s approach in the novel is canny: she breaks her story down into two parts, the first covering the trial and the second its fallout. For the duration of the initial part, which takes up roughly the first half of the book, none of the jurors is named, being identified only by generic designations: “the shoolteacher,” “the church lady,” “the chemical engineer,” “the alternate.” The protagonist and her lover, an anatomy professor a decade younger than she is, are referred to by their juror numbers: C-2 and F-17. The anonymizing tactic is effective in increasing the reader’s psychological distance from the characters, thereby allowing a greater potential for judgment and a withholding of empathy.

Compare that to the effect in the book’s second half, when the protagonist is reunited with her husband and given a name. In the wake of the trial, as the jurors’ dalliance starts to seep out into the public and the health of the protagonist’s husband deteriorates, Ciment ramps up the emotional stakes and pulls a nifty bait-and-switch, turning the beam of judgment squarely on the reader, who is forced to reevaluate previous assessments and suppositions in the light of entirely different emotional dynamics.

What begins as a fairly straightforward courtroom thriller transforms into a painful and emotionally fraught examination of desire and culpability, the thematic weight of which is belied by the novel’s brevity and surface breeziness. (At fewer than 200 pages, this is a book that can easily be read in a single sitting.)

Ciment’s ultimate refusal to answer significant questions raised in the story – Is the defendant guilty? What role did her sister and her sister’s boyfriend play in the crime? Did the jury make a mistake in its verdict? – highlights the literary sleight-of-hand she is able to pull off over the course of the book. By convincing her readers to pay close attention to the mechanics of the trial in the early stages of the novel, Ciment guides us down a path that leads to a dead end. Like any great “twist” novel, what The Body in Question appears to be about at the beginning is far removed from what it ends up being about.

Till death do us part: the literary bait-and-switch of Jill Ciment’s The Body in Question
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