The Cruelty of Lambs, by Angelena Boden, is a challenging contemporary thriller, dealing as it does with the insidious effects of domestic abuse. The protagonist is a middle aged musician who has been forced to step down from his teaching job at a school following allegations, subsequently withdrawn, of sexual misconduct with pupils. His wife blames him for the difficulties her business is now facing citing the stress and financial cost of supporting him while he fought to clear his name.
Una Carrington is a controlling woman, damaged from her own upbringing but unable to shoulder responsibility for any failures on her part. She has built a successful business that enables her to fly around the world. She has little interest in her two children and keeps them at a distance. She takes out her frustrations on her husband, Iain Millar, a quiet soul who is happiest when playing his beloved cello.
Iain is spiralling into depression. The emptiness and minimalist decor of his sterile home are at odds with the warmth and clutter in which he was raised. He misses his children. The eldest, a son from his first marriage which fell apart when he was unfaithful, is working abroad. The younger two are away at boarding school thanks to a trust fund set up by his father. With his wife constantly haranguing him for being out of work he suffers debilitating stress along with the physical abuse she inflicts when he will not do as she demands. He starts to hear voices in his head telling him to harm her.
Una turns to men she meets on business trips and in bars to try to shore up her diminishing reserves of confidence. She blames Iain with his peace loving compliance, which she regards as weakness, for forcing her to behave in this way. Iain has the support of his good friend, Fergus, a rough diamond out of his depth when it comes to other’s marital issues. Fergus can see what is going on in Iain’s life but feels powerless when his friend will not admit to the extent of the issues he is trying to deal with.
The story plays out over a six month period. It is told in snapshots of key incidents taking the reader inside the minds of both the unstable Una and the increasingly agitated Iain. These are uncomfortable places to be. The details of what exactly is happening remains murky. Iain’s valuable, heritage cello becomes a fixation for Una’s neurotic behaviour. She resents the comfort he finds in music, and that it enables him to shut her out. Friends and family circle the unhappy couple, feeling helpless as they each descend physically and psychologically.
Whilst in places this is a bleak, disturbing tale, the known prevalence of domestic abuse makes it an important issue for all to consider. Marriage is a complex institution, especially when children are involved. Despite Una’s cruelty, the author allows for a degree of sympathy. Having been drawn into Iain’s dilemma I was apprehensive about how his story would end. This is a page turner, but not one for the trepidatious.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane.