Content warning: This review discusses fictional accounts of suicide and domestic violence. There may also be a few spoilers.
The police are called to investigate when a young woman, Katie, is found dead in a river. She is discovered not far from her workplace, a refuge for women escaping domestic violence. It’s not clear whether she fell off the bridge or was pushed, so police must determine if they’re investigating a suicide or murder.
This is a common premise. However, from the outset, it’s apparent that Jessica Moor’s debut novel, Keeper, isn’t traditional crime fiction. It isn’t really a psychological thriller or a whodunnit. This is a suspense novel about domestic violence that pointedly sets out to inform readers that abuse isn’t only physical. Moor also takes care to acknowledge the multiple types of person who inflicts harm or is harmed.
It’s productive to view Keeper as domestic noir – a sub-genre crime novelist Julia Crouch coined when writing about her own work. She explained that stories from this genre primarily take place in homes and workplaces, and are concerned with relationships and female experiences. Crouch said:
“[domestic noir] takes as its base a broadly feminist view that the domestic sphere is a challenging and sometimes dangerous prospect for its inhabitants.”
A famous example of domestic noir is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and there are some similarities between the two mysteries. In Keeper, like in Flynn’s 2012 novel, it’s hard to trust any of the central characters. There are no heroes. As is often the case in real life, thoughts and behaviours are hard to predict and interpret. In Gone Girl the narration moves back and forth between both members of a couple, each telling conflicting versions of the same events. In Keeper the narration shifts between disparate people, creating a sense of the multiplicity of experiences held by victims of family violence and those who work in the sector. Like all good crime novels, both end with a big twist.
Keeper spends time in the past and the present. One strand follows the development of a young woman named Katie’s toxic relationship with Jamie, a man she meets in a nightclub. Another strand tracks the ongoing investigation into the death of a woman with the same first name. Attention is paid to frontline workers, perhaps due to the fact Moor was inspired to write Keeper after working in the domestic violence crisis sector for a year. Imagery of the refuge is detailed and specific, as is the description of how its inhabitants behave.
The perspective of male characters in Keeper reveals disturbing attitudes towards women. An omniscient narrator often reveals the bias of Whitworth, the policeman responsible for the case. Nearing retirement age, he thinks he’s seen it all. But Whitworth is insecure around women employed in powerful positions. He and Val, who runs the refuge, clash from the outset. She fiercely protects the privacy and security of the women in her care and openly distrusts men. He thinks she is paranoid and self-important. He fails to understand why Val thinks allowing male police officers into the refuge may put residents in danger.
Moor includes details about Whitworth’s private life that indicate he feels alienated by his family. He communicates with his wife poorly and struggles with the thought of his teenage daughter entering womanhood. He reflects on the domestic violence his father perpetrated growing up, but his attitude towards women remains paternalistic.
Keeper is written with diligence and empathy. Moor’s novel is accessible, using simple prose and dialogue to move the plot forward – it isn’t esoteric literature. Although readers with extensive knowledge of issues surrounding domestic violence may find its treatment predictable at times, this novel is written for a different audience. As stories about domestic violence proliferate in popular fiction the considerate and constructive dialogue surrounding these issues should become standard practice.
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