The Closer I Get is a dark psychological thriller for the social media age – it’s zeitgeisty, relevant and chilling because it could be real. You have no idea who is out there, so just beware the next time you follow someone back on Twitter! And, if you’re a writer, you won’t believe the dangers that might accompany a five star review from a book blogger or an apparently innocuous request for an autograph from a smiling, attentive fan at a book signing. You never know who is out there! This is a really creepy tale of obsession, but it’s nuanced and twisty, there is more than meets the eye here. Tom is a novelist, his first book, dealing with toxic masculinity and the travails of a sensitive soul, was a big success; Richard & Judy Book Club choice, and a film starring Ryan Gosling. The second book took a bit of a dive though, and Tom needs the bloggers and the fans, the ‘likes’ that are an instant gratification and a validation of his efforts, especially as he is having real trouble with his next novel. Of course, most people are perfectly fine and no harm to anyone but Tom’s new ‘friend’, Eve ‘Evie’ Stokes, is the exception, she’s fixated on Tom and it won’t end well.

The Closer I Get is also blackly comic, at least in the early part of the book, it reels you in before the tension and seriousness of the material hit home. The jokes don’t belittle the problems of obsessional followers, stalkers, or their impact on their the victims, you will be in no doubt about that. However, The Closer I Get is also a play on the relationship between the author and the reader, particularly online, there is a strange symbiosis. Little things happen, things that are stretched and exaggerated here – the slightly weird becomes spookily strange. How many authors have been asked to read a manuscript by a fan? A few I would imagine, but here it is much more than a cheeky request, it’s opens a sinister plot strand. There’s also a dose of author versus publisher and/or versus agent angst thrown in for good measure. Tom bemoans the photogenic blondes fresh from their MA course whose books get all the attention and his agent asks:

‘. . . Have you ever thought about writing crime?’
Tom pulled a face. ‘And destroy what’s left of my reputation? I don’t think so.’
‘A few years ago, I’d have agreed with you,’ Lucinda said. ‘But things have changed. People aren’t nearly as snobbish about it these days.’

These are ‘in’ jokes that are perfectly accessible to the reader, cameo caricatures (bring me the money or you’re gone) and playful tropes. However, underlying it all is an uneasy atmosphere as the ‘what if’s?’ in the plot are extruded to the n’th degree for maximum effect, deliciously dark fun becomes sinister. Tom says of Evie:

“She’s a succubus, feeding off my reputation.”

Day one of Evie’s trial. Evie’s perspective: she’s not a woman to hold a grudge and even at this late stage she is willing to admit that they both made mistakes. Perhaps they could set their differences aside and move on – forget this silly court case? Evie doesn’t blame Tom but he could be a bit more grateful, after all, she always supported him. Fate brought them together and now she loves him, didn’t she defend him that night the awful feminist cornered him at the book signing? After which he signed her book:

‘To Evie, a kindred spirit. Best wishes, Tom Hunter.’

And then at 6.12 a.m., a ‘very intimate time’, he followed her back on Twitter. Evie thinks that other people may have put Tom up to rejecting her. Especially that Emma, she came to court with him in his taxi. The police are in on it too and the lawyers twist everything. Tom, it’s time to reconsider before it’s too late.

Eight months before: Successful author Tom Hunter, whose first novel was a roaring success, finally goes to the police about Evie. The harassment began online and it’s affected his life but he is ashamed of his weakness. DI Sue Grant points out he shouldn’t blame himself as she takes his statement. Tom says he met Eve ‘Evie’ Stokes just once, about a year ago, at a book signing, she was already following him on Twitter. Initially the contacts were harmless, supportive even, ‘I love your book’ kind of stuff, but when he didn’t respond to her barrage of posts Evie grew angry posting comments about his sexuality: gaylord, pansy. Tom is homosexual, making her fascination with him seem even more strange. Now Tom is on anti-depressants, only his good friend Emma supports him.

As the case unfolds in court it doesn’t appear good for Evie, she faces prison. Of course, whatever they decide to do to her they can’t stop how she feels about Tom. Only it’s not as simple as that, Tom isn’t telling the whole truth. It won’t end here…

This is a brilliant psychological portrait of victim and perpetrator; family past, mental health, and the blurred lines between acceptable and unreasonable behaviour. Like Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love it tackles erotomania, but also respect, homophobia, cyber bullying and the invidious way in which a life can be corroded by stalking; the confidence and ability to live your life is sucked dry. The Closer I Get tells a story much as you might expect, stalker and stalked at odds, but there’s an underlying current of something else going on and the novel has a menacing kicker at the end.

Paul Burke 4/4

The Closer I Get by Paul Burston
Orenda Books 9781912374779 pbk Jul 2019