Amy Suiter Clarke seemed to be riding the zeitgeist with her debut novel Girl 11 and a main character who was a true crime podcaster. Her second novel, Lay Your Body Down centres around another current hot button topic in crime fiction – cults and the corrupting power of religion. A few of good recent examples of this trend include JP Pomare’s In The Clearing (now also a TV series) and Christian White’s debut The Nowhere Child and for something a little more offbeat – Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon.
Delilah ‘Del’ Walker is not having a good day. Already only scaping by she is dumped by her decidedly awful boyfriend, told by her flatmate that she will have to move out and quits her job. Del’s eye is caught though by news that Lars, old boyfriend of hers, has died in a hunting accident and she decides to go back to her hometown of Bower, Minnesota, to attend the funeral. The town and its life are centred around the Messiah church and its charismatic leader Pastor Rick. The Church has become popular through a blog written by Lars’ wife Eve since she was a teenager preaching the idea of the “Noble Wife” who sacrifices herself to serve her husband. When Del does go back to Bower she finds that no one but Lars’ parents is treating the death as suspicious despite the murky circumstances and she determines that she will be the one to uncover the truth. In doing so she will stir up the closed, religious community and put herself in the crosshairs.
Lay Your Body Down is told in three intertwining narratives. The main story revolves around Del’s not particularly expert investigation. Clarke effectively manages to capture the amateurish nature of Del’s method while she also slowly makes her way towards the truth. Running parallel to this are excerpts from Eve’s blog, including entries that were never published, and running in reverse chronological order, excerpts from Del’s teenage diary which exposes some of Pastor Rick’s more questionable practices but through a more naïve lens.
Clarke effectively conveys Del’s struggle to overcome her programming. Despite knowing that some of the things done to her as a child were wrong, she cannot help reverting to her teenage self when encountering the authority figures from her childhood. At the same time, Del is fighting against a force that seems to control every aspect of the lives of the people of Bower, particularly the women, and so needs all of the self-belief she can muster.
Lay Your Body Down is marketed as a “novel of suspense” and Clarke does deliver what it says on the cover. Clarke expertly delivers plenty of great twists and reveals through to the last page. But it is much more than this. It is an exploration of the dangerous and exploitative power of religion in the hands of unscrupulous and charismatic leaders. Clarke looks are how people are co-opted into a belief system that can be antithetical to their safety and security but also how some manage to break away from that. And through Del she tells a powerful story of a woman who, despite the pain that it brings, takes it on herself to look her very real demons in the eye and take back control of her life.