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There’s a point early on in Paul Burston’s The Closer I Get when protagonist Tom goes to the police to report that he’s being harassed. The female detective who interviews him is astonished to hear that he’s been stalked for about a year and not reported it. Why?, she asks. I was embarrassed, he says. ‘A man being bullied by a woman – it’s a bit pathetic’, to which she responds, ‘Men can be victims, too.’

Drawing on the author’s own experiences of being stalked, The Closer I Get is an honest, very courageous book. Like Burston, Tom is a successful writer; Evie Stokes a fan – ‘short for fanatic’. But Evie’s love and admiration quickly turn to something far more dark, far more sinister, when she feels Tom has slighted her. Her tweets become increasingly vitriolic, littered with homophobic insults. She even accuses him of plagiarising her work, changing Tom’s Wikipedia page to reflect this.

Initially, Tom’s pride keeps him from reporting the abuse, partly because he thinks he can deal with it. It quickly escalates though, spinning out of control, and no matter how often he blocks Evie from social media, she finds a way through.

The situation Tom finds himself in is a comment on our social media age in which ‘intimacy’ and ‘friendship’ are seemingly based on little more than the pressing of a button; where everyone feels they have a right to say whatever they want, however they want, with little or no recourse, shielded by the anonymity and distance of a virtual world.

Beautifully written, with an immediacy and pace that engages us from the very first page, The Closer I Get is also a painful, stomach twisting read that keeps us off balance. Told from both characters’ perspectives, we gain insight into Evie and Tom as the events unfold. Both are flawed, somewhat manipulative individuals whose actions and reactions are often fuelled by their own biases, fears and paranoia.

The anxiety and despair which Tom feels as Evie’s harassment spirals are far too familiar to those of us who’ve had similar experiences at some point in our lives. For me, it wasn’t cyberbullying but stalking by someone on the periphery of the group I ran with in my twenties, beginning with a throwaway conversation at a party I can barely remember and yet, at its height, resulting in my stalker living in a house across the road from me.

In a very candid article published in the Guardian, Burston said that while writing the book was daunting, ‘turning a traumatic experience into a work of fiction proved enormously therapeutic. Before, I was still consumed with anger at the woman who harassed me. Now, I feel nothing but pity for her. And that is far easier to live with.’ It’s also far easier to read.

This is a compelling novel, smartly written and well-executed, Burston keeping us primed throughout as we watch breathlessly to see what next will unfold. It draws well-needed attention to a crime that is far too common in our society and from which we still don’t have adequate or comprehensive protection.

A must read.

 

Paul Burston| The Closer I Get | Orenda Books | 11 July 2019 | paperback original | £8.99 |

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Soundtrack: Music gets us through most things, that and the great truly Brit, twisted, dark humour that makes us able to turn the most horrific of situations into laughter. So, why not combine both? On the soundtrack are The Vogue’s ‘Turn around and look at me‘ in which they croon ‘There is someone walking behind you / Turn around, look at me / There is someone watching your footsteps / Turn around, look at me’, er, no; ‘Blondie’s ‘One way or another‘, of course; My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Good Charlotte‘; The Police’s ‘Every breath‘, the stalker’s anthem surely?; Death Cab for Cutie’s ‘I will possess your heart‘, mmm, please, not literally. Oh, and Radiohead’s wonderful ‘Creep’ has to get a mention, but Macy Gray’s acoustic version, something Evie might listen to perhaps?

Acknowledgements: Book text quotes © Paul Burston 2019. Article ‘Nightmare, flashbacks and contant fear: how a stalker brought me to my wits’ end,’ Paul Burston, the Guardian, 3 July 2019. Many thanks to Anne Cater, as always, and to the publisher for sending a digital proof and jacket image. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved.

Also of interest:By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’;‘Yvonne Battle-Fenton’s Rememembered‘; ‘Is monogamy dead?’ Rosie Wylie asks‘; ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised‘; ‘Louise Voss’ The Old You‘; ‘Joseph Knox, what’s not to love?’; ‘Stephanie Butland, bringing women into focus‘; ‘We should all be feminists‘; The not-so-invisible woman: 150 greats in their own words’;Changing the narrative: The Red Word;‘ ‘Permission by Saskia Vogel‘; ‘Helga Flatland’s study of A Modern Family’;  ‘Blood Orange’; ‘Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Dialogue’s brilliant debut; ‘RW Kwon’s The Incendiaries’; ‘Beauty in translation – Roxanne Bouchard’s French Canadian noir‘; ‘How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original “Penguin Ten”‘; Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday – Romek Marber for Penguin Crime (book covers we love); ‘Vanda Symon; ‘Some like it hot – the joy of Carole Mortimer, award-winning novelist‘; Gina Kirkham’

This review is © 2019 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Thank you so much.