Review: The Eye Of The Beholder

Margie Orford – The Eye Of The Beholder (Blog Tour)

Author Margie Orford

Published by Canongate Books, hardback £14.99. Also available in ebook and audio book. I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours and to Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers for inviting me to join the tour and facilitating.

First, the official blurb: When danger lies in the eye of the beholder, what happens when you reject its pull? Cora carries secrets her daughter can’t know. Freya is frightened by what her mother leaves unsaid. Angel will only bury the past if it means putting her abusers into the ground. One act of violence sets three women on a collision course, each desperate to find the truth, when the people they love are not what they seem. When danger lies in the eye of the beholder, what happens when you reject its pull?

I first encountered Margie Orford at Bloody Scotland, on a panel with US writer Alexandra Sokoloff – I’d gone along not knowing either author but the programme description piqued my interest. It was a blistering discussion, and I came away with a new fire inside. Sokoloff’s Huntress series and Orford’s Clare Hart novels take very different approaches to the subject of male violence against women. Yet these novels are cathartic and uplifting, as well as tough and unsparing; I recommend them. 

Now Orford is back with a new thriller, The Eye Of The Beholder, opening in the snow and freezing cold of Canada where Cora is running from a man who has left her bruised, and hoping to reconnect with her daughter, Freya.

Our heads filled with questions, we next meet Angel, a young woman with a tough past who works at a wolf sanctuary where a woman brings an injured dog found on the side of the road – this is Trotsky, who belongs to art dealer Yves Fournier, who has a secluded cabin not far away. It turns out he went skiing and hasn’t been seen since. But she’s patient, she can wait til he turns up…

We move between the present in Canada with Angel, with Freya in London and with Cora – who is a renowned artist – in a remote part of Scotland, plus the recent past in various places with Cora and Yves, and her childhood in South Africa. The extreme cold of Canada, the temperate UK, and the blistering heat of South Africa are effective contrasts, each shown to have its own beauty – and its own ugliness too.

Angel and Cora are both determined to escape their pasts, though the more we learn, the more we see how much work this takes. But Angel is finding peace in her work with the wolves, relating to the animals far more easily than people. Cora returns repeatedly in her art to exploring South Africa – each fresh canvas is more a palimpsest than clean slate, though the act of creation is healing.

Cora’s latest exhibition, Forbidden Fruit, has parts of the UK press in a lather, and both she and Freya have been questioned by police about the series of miniatures portraying a young girl. As Cora begins a massive new piece of work and Freya explores her mother’s past through a stack of newly-unearthed photographs and cine film, we also learn more of their bond and of their relationships with men whose types will be very familiar to most female readers. 

There is Yves, controlling and manipulative; Leo, Cora’s ex-husband who is mostly ineffectual, though caring; Johann, Freya’s boyfriend, who wants her to be someone she isn’t, and Tommy, Angel’s boss, who like so many decent guys can’t see the danger in his friend Jeb. In comparison, the women are vibrant and determined that what they have endured will not define them. Centring their voices and experiences puts them a world away from the passive victims needing rescued by a gruff detective with a drink problem.

As the tension is quietly ratcheted up, Angel makes her way to Scotland and there is a quiet reckoning between her and Cora before an ending that has such power I could have cheered. 

The title is well chosen and pleasingly ambiguous: Ideas of the male gaze v the female gaze run through the whole novel – Cora’s art is steeped in this; Angel was forced to one side, now she is vehement about being on the other. There’s also the idea of what people bring when they view art, seeing Freya when the girl in the paintings is actually a young Cora (and the implied extension of what do readers bring to a book when they open the covers). And we all have times when, like Cora, we see in other people only what we want to, and others equally see in us what they want to. 

The Eye of the Beholder is horribly realistic, emotionally exhausting and unashamedly feminist. It is filled with empathy, hugely cathartic and seasoned with a pinch of the blackest of black humour. It grabs you by the heart in the first paragraph and doesn’t let go until the last word. Orford has always chronicled necessary stories wrapped in understated style and gripping plots; here she has upped her game so far other writers will need rocket fuel to keep up. 

Margie Orford is an award-winning journalist who has been dubbed the “Queen of South African Crime Fiction”. Her Clare Hart crime novels have been translated into ten languages and are being developed into a television series. She was born in London and spent her formative years in Namibia and South Africa. A Fulbright Scholar, she was educated in South Africa and the US, has a doctorate in creative writing from the University of East Anglia and is an honorary fellow of St Hugh’s College, Oxford. She is President Emerita of PEN South Africa and was the patron of Rape Crisis Cape Town. She now lives in London. She will be talking about her work at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 22 August, alongside Joanne Harris, in an event titled Women In A Man’s World.

You can follow the author on Twitter here: @MargieOrford

Don’t forget to check out all the other reviews on the blog tour!

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