One night, Catherine Bailey goes out clubbing with a group of her girlfriends in Lancaster, England. At one club, Lee, the handsome doorman, catches her fancy, just as he becomes smitten with her. He remains obsessed with her, even after the second time he tries to kill her.
This obsession is at the core of Elizabeth Haynes's excellent debut, "Into the Darkest Corner."
During Lee's trial for nearly killing her, Catherine has a nervous breakdown--a few, actually. Lee ends up being convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for "Assault." Catherine tries to move on. She relocates from Lancaster to London, shortens her name to "Cathy," and lands a good HR job with a pharmaceuticals company. Outside of work, she''s a wreck. She has such severe OCD that it sometimes takes her three hours to leave the house. She has to "check" the door any number of times, meaning locking and unlocking each of the locks, testing the doorknob, even feeling the seam between the door and its frame. She checks her silverware drawer, leaves her curtains opened so that a precise number of panes are exposed. She'll repeat this routine dozens of times throughout the day.
One day, a new tenant moves into the flat above hers. His name is Stuart, and he is a psychologist. His specialties are not OCD and PTSD, which are Cathy's specific pathologies, but he knows enough to help her start dealing with her illness. They become friends, and Cathy starts to feel less panicky, more at ease, almost comfortable with Stuart. Until the day she gets word from Lancaster that Lee is being released.
Still, with the help of Stuart and Al, the therapist he guides her to, Cathy's deep mental scars begin to heal--not just superficially, but in a way that gives her strength for that inevitable time when Lee--master of cruelty and mind games--comes back to reclaim her.
The most effective tool Elizabeth Haynes uses is the structure of the book. The narrative shifts between 2003/4 and 2007/8. In other words, when we're reading the story of Catherine being tormented by Lee, we know that she survives. When we're reading about how horrible life is at the novel's beginning, we can see why--we're there inside her memory, as she's beaten, raped, cut, and subjected to horrible psychological torment.
In many such novels, it's difficult to keep the two time periods clear. Ms Haynes avoids that nicely. It was clear when I was in 2004 with Lee destroying Catherine, and when I was in 2008 with Stuart helping Cathy reclaim her life.
The interlaced stories are told unflinchingly in Catherine's voice. When she talks about going to a bar, intending to get drunk and pick up a one-night stand, she doesn't hesitate. Nor does she when she describes being punched, or raped, or losing so much blood, she thought she would surely die. (Had she, we wouldn't be hearing her voice, obviously)
There are some sweet moments in "Into the Darkest Corner." I like the slow, almost awkward way Stuart and Cathy's romance progresses, even though he quickly becomes her most-valuable friend and ally.
Still, we know that one day soon, it won't be shadows Cathy's jumping at; it will be Lee. And somebody is going to end up hurt.
In the Epilogue, we find Catherine strong and brave, in control of herself. I thought of the ending to "The Terminator," where Sarah Connor is driving south in her Jeep, with a German Shepherd and a gun beside her. Catherine's strength is inside her where her fear used to reign.