What would you do, were you in the following situation? You’ve recently inherited a large sum of money. Your future is financially secure. You no longer need to work. What then will you do with your new found free time? Travel the world? Read every book at the library? Heaven knows, do something that might help others? These are choices some people may make.
But not the nameless protagonist – though I think calling him the antagonist is more apt – of Consent (published by Faber & Faber, 2018), the second novel of British journalist and writer Leo Benedictus. Whatever his name, his is a compulsive man with deep psychological problems, and an excess of time on his hands. To keep himself occupied therefore, he decides to become a full-time stalker.
He follows his victims, people, usually women, whom he encounters by chance. On the street, at a shop. Keeps notes about them, assigns them “case numbers”. But, as he informs us, he is not a person completely devoid of ethics. He has guidelines, rules, he “works” to. For instance, he is not to become personally involved with those he tracks. And that remains the case until he encounters victim number eighty, a young woman named Frances.
Frances is a city of London worker who has recently been suspended from her job, after her employers received an anonymous email alleging misconduct on her part. And it’s after he deviates from his would-be principles, and makes himself known to her, that he lurches from the intrusive to the truly sinister. It is behaviour that instils Consent, also known as Read Me, with its confronting, uncomfortable, edge.
The nameless antagonist lacks empathy and compassion for his hapless victims. These are people who did nothing wrong, except inadvertently stray into his line of sight. As disturbing as it is, this is skilful writing on the part of Benedictus. He intricately probes one deranged mind, while expounding the anger and fear endured by victims of stalkers. Terrifying stuff.