Do unto others

© C A Lovegrove

The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig.
Abacus, 2021 (2020).

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Luke 6:31

A little way into this modern morality tale Hannah – poverty-stricken, downtrodden, and en route to see her dying mother in Cornwall – is invited into a first-class carriage by Jinni. To Hannah’s surprise she finds herself making a pact with Jinni for each to murder the other’s husband, consciously echoing the central concept in Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. All that remains is, apparently, to see how this plays out.

I see, however, that I’m not the only reader to find this mix of mystery thriller and misery memoir hard going, primarily because anyone familiar with domestic abuse – personally or through a family member or acquaintance – will recognise all the classic signs: the physical and psychological abuse, the bullying and the financial strictures, the control exerted through coercion and threats, made especially unbearable when there are children involved.

So, if it weren’t for the murder mystery element in the novel and the literary parallels which the author referenced the sheer misery of proceedings would’ve been enough to have depressed this reader immeasurably. However, Amanda Craig raises hopes here that guilty parties will get their just desserts, not just echoing the Sermon on the Mount but also, as some may know, Charles Kingsley’s fairy Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid, the counterpart of Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby in The Water-Babies. Will Hannah – her name in Hebrew means ‘grace’ or ‘favoured one’ – conform to the hypothesis of nominative determinism?

© C A Lovegrove

The Golden Rule is also hard going because, like abuse, it feels neverending – the prose, initially at least, pummels the reader into a state of exhaustion. No doubt this is deliberate, because the intention I believe is to remind the general reader that equality between the sexes is rarely a given, a situation compounded by the growing social inequality engineered over a decade through austerity, Brexit and much more. Moreover, Hannah’s tendency to “flipflop between resolution and indecision” makes for a frustrating protagonist.

Nevertheless Craig never loses sight that this is a mystery thriller. The premise is that Hannah will first murder Jinni’s abusive husband Con in his Cornish mansion, then Jenni will do the same to Hannah’s husband Jake. But Hannah is stymied to find that a drunken caretaker called Stan is the only one at the crumbling overgrown wreck Endpoint, and when he kindly lets her sleep at the mansion overnight her plans to remain anonymous are rapidly compromised.

To say much more than this of the plot’s twists and turns would be both spoilery and unfair on the potential reader so I’ll concentrate instead on what might seem incidentals but are additional leitmotifs. First are the references to other art-forms, such as music: Debussy, Cornish hymns and folksongs for example. There’s painting too, mainly King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Edward Burne-Jones which is evoked as a possible parallel to Hannah’s view of her situation in Cornwall. And there’s video gaming, where a player’s decisions have consequences as well as deciding outcomes.

Above all The Golden Rule is deeply enmeshed in the world of narrative. Crime novels, of course:

Stan’s words came back to her: “Everybody is capable of murder, given the right circumstances. The real mystery is why more of us don’t do it.”

But Craig’s net is wider, to catch more than mystery thrillers: she references fairytales, and not just the chief one referenced in her Afterword; children’s literature by Rosemary Manning, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence and maybe even E Nesbit’s Five Children and It; Arthurian legend also features strongly, and Daphne du Maurier’s Cornish romances; the Gothick spirit of the Brontës and the allure of Austen’s novels.

In the final analysis I characterised this novel as a modern morality tale, one that – set in 2018 – inevitably reflected political and class divides in Britain, injustices and inequalities. Still, by initially presenting as a revenge tragedy The Golden Rule may disguise the fact that this is really about personal morals, how physical abuse and even self-harm often come down to a matter of individual choice, and that staying the hand – however righteously raised – may yet be the best decision. Though the moral element may be at times be laid on a little thick there’s no doubting its rectitude.

“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you: do ye even so to them…”

Matthew 7:12

The Golden Rule was my February read for Adam’s TBR Pile Challenge

20 thoughts on “Do unto others

  1. Even though what I write could be described as a fairytale for adults, and I reference and allude to all kinds of (what I consider relevant) stuff, I stick to a straight-told present-time linear-sequence single-though-commingled story – and the tricky ones still leave me cold. Agreeing to murder each other’s husbands is already way too complicated – AND petty and has been done – to pull me into identifying with any character involved.

    Too involved for my simple brain. Though I’d try the sample pages before making a final decision if I had to read it, say, for a book club.

    Except for your last statement: “…this is really about personal morals, how physical abuse and even self-harm often come down to a matter of individual choice, and that staying the hand – however righteously raised – may yet be the best decision. Though the moral element may be at times be laid on a little thick there’s no doubting its rectitude.” Which would describe my own fiction quite perfectly. Hmmm.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not recommending you need to read this, Alicia, but I think she gives enough of a backstory for Hannah so the reader can at least sympathise with her and her predicament, and to make the premise of mutual mariticides plausible. And given a certain person’s psychopathy I think Craig makes much of the tale very plausible.


      1. I sympathize. I do. It’s a sad commentary on our society that these thoughts even exist because we don’t protect the abused people properly (I also agree proof is usually not that easy). I think it is a subject that I am blessed not to be involved in directly, and was horrified to find that a family member had kept quiet about all kinds of things because she thought it was required of her. The story IS plausible. That’s what’s scary. And a good writer makes it worse. And other solutions are not handled well in ‘real’ life.

        But I can’t see using my very low energy and limited reading time to put those stories into my mind – I can’t get rid of them. Too much imagination? If they ever cure us, I have a lot of catching up to do.

        But I love reading your reviews – to get a taste. As I said somewhere in PC#1:

        “A cat is allowed to look at the Queen, Kary.”
        “A cat is not allowed to want to be Queen.”
        “Better not to want?”
        “Better not to want.” It hurt.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. The start of this might well possibly merit a trigger warning: helping free a family member from just such a toxic relationship was for us a long and arduous but very necessary commitment. So, yes, *don’t* read this if your resilience is in any way low.


    1. Personally I would’ve preferred a bit more ‘show’ and a little less ‘tell’ to make this an easier read without losing its impact, Karen, but luckily I got drawn into the tricksy twists and turns quite soon after all that. And of course I broadly agree with her political slant so that helped!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I can see this working as a televised drama series, Mallika, especially as these days broadcasters offer helpline numbers to call or websites to visit for those affected by the issues involved.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your review resonated with me Chris as I read this about a year after it was published and it left me feeling drained to be honest. However something made me persevere and I can’t put my finger on quite what aspect encouraged that. I think perhaps the social commentary was something I found interesting plus the Cornish setting as a family member had moved there but returned a bit disillusioned. The twists probably helped too. Like you I can see that the story may work as a TV series.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What you say sounds about right, Anne. I very much liked the fact that as well as an intriguing thriller (though I guessed two or three of the ‘reveals’ early on) this was also an issues-based novel which I felt covered so much crucial ground. There was domestic abuse, of course, but also the lie-based Brexit foisted on the UK, simmering anger against second homes, decimated industries like fishing, social inequality, racial prejudice, predatory sociopathy, and much, much more.

      Against all that there was social commentary, familial ties, a touch or two of humour and a genuine sense of suspense intermixed with a few literary Easter eggs. I thought it redeemed itself after a depressing and distressing start and so am very glad I didn’t give up on it as some readers did.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t read Amanda Craig for years and this does not sound like the kind of book I’d want to read, so this review made me dig out my thoughts from my reading journals to see why I’d read two of hers.

    A Private Place really impressed me, and from what I’ve written it seems like an optimistic view of the world, but I did not like Love in Idleness which was set in Tuscany where I happened to be at the time. (This was back in the days before Kindles, when I took back-breaking quantities of books in my suitcase so that I wouldn’t run out of books to read in non-English speaking countries.) So that’s the book that put me off!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is the first Craig I’ve read but I’m sure I’ll be digging into her back catalogue, Lisa. Of the two you’ve mentioned A Private Place appeals, and even the other – a modern version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, apparently – intrigues. This current one (her next is due to be published soon) has had mixed reviews, and perhaps you can guess why from what I’ve already written, so may not be the one for you!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I agree, absolutely … though I’ve just finished Rebecca Kuang’s Babel and the political themes which loomed large Craig’s novel continue, along with philosophy, colonialism, etymology, historiography – I’ve really enjoyed it!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I have only read (and reviewed) A Private Place. She is good on music, and bullying, but in the end I felt the book was too long. I started another book by her and was rather put off to see that Gore Tore and some of the more obnoxious characters continue into other books.

    Liked by 2 people

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