Creepy, obsessive, insidiously persistent: stalkers deserve a prominent place in any catalogue of contemporary social evils. Celebrity cases and growing anxiety about the decline of privacy in a high-tech era have helped give their activities a grim salience in recent years. It is this unease that Leo Benedictus expertly taps in his second novel, Consent, a queasily compelling thriller.
In a disturbingly chatty first-person narrative, we follow the progression of Benedictus’s unnamed protagonist from mild sociopathy to deadly menace, a transition facilitated by a legacy that makes him a multimillionaire and leaves him “rich enough to do anything”. Once he has selected a target, he uses every means available, from voyeuristic peeping to electronic surveillance, to become a hidden part of her life, though he mostly avoids face-to-face meetings.
The prey in Consent is management consultant Frances, who is suspended from her job after an unspecified email complaint. Cast adrift and nurturing a nagging desire for revenge on whoever is responsible for her dismissal, she does not realise that she is being stalked, still less that her stalker is prepared to take extreme measures against those around her. All of this is recorded in unsparing detail in the protagonist’s notebook as he inveigles himself ever deeper into Frances’s life. The reader’s mounting sense of dread resides in the fact that we realise that nothing can be done to protect her.
What is perhaps most unsettling is the narrator’s voice: philosophical and apparently possessing self-knowledge (he is well versed in Montaigne), yet deeply deranged. Its tone is horribly chummy, as when he introduces himself to the reader: “You’re being very patient. You want the nitty-gritty, and you’re right . . . Me:
who am I? . . . The word that many would apply to me would be stalker, but applying doesn’t make it so. I’d say instead that I practise people studies.” At the same time, there is a chilling lack of affect, even during gruesome episodes. Motive remains obscure. “I imagine being asked Why? and my answer
is always that the feeling . . . doesn’t have a name that I know, but it’s in the same family as the lure of cliff edges and car accidents.”
Those who have read John Fowles’ The Collector may find Consent’s central premise familiar: in that book, too, a disturbed individual comes into money that allows him to stalk a female victim. But there is no denying the ingenuity with which Benedictus constructs his tale. His first novel, The Afterparty (2011), took a sardonic look at the world of publishing, with a version of Benedictus himself woven into the narrative (a notion recently repeated by Anthony Horowitz with The Word is Murder ). No such tricks here, though there are metafictional games involving the notion of a book within a book. There are other current novels about the subject of stalking (such as Dirk Kurbjuweit’s Fear), but Benedictus ensures that the familiar elements are outweighed by his innovative approach.
Consent by Leo Benedictus, Faber, £12.99, 225 pages
Barry Forshaw’s ‘Historical Noir’ will be published next month by Pocket Essentials