Book Review

The Origins of Iris by Beth Lewis

‘I opened my eyes and the woman wearing my face opened hers at the same time.’

Iris flees New York City, and her abusive wife Claude, for the Catskill Mountains. When she was a child, Iris and her father found solace in the beauty and wilderness of the forest; now, years later, Iris has returned for time and space to clear her head, and to come to terms with the mistakes that have led her here. But what Iris doesn’t expect in her journey of survival and self-discovery is to find herself – literally.

Trapped in a neglected cabin deep in the mountains, Iris is grudgingly forced to come face to face with a seemingly prettier, happier and better version of herself. Other Iris made different choices in life and love. But is she all she seems? Can she be trusted? What is she hiding?

As a storm encroaches, threatening both their lives, time is running out for them to discover why they have been brought together, and what it means for their futures.

An important, searing novel about one woman’s journey in fleeing an abusive relationship and confronting the secrets of her past.

I’m a huge fan of Beth Lewis’s work having loved both The Wolf Road and Bitter Sun. Her latest novel, The Origins of Iris, is very different to both of those novels, but it’s another one that I loved and I’m certain that it will make an appearance in my books of the year list come December.

The novel is told in alternating ‘Before’ and ‘After’ chapters. The pivotal point is Iris’s decision to leave Claude, her wife of six years. The before chapters show Iris’s relationship with Claude and what drives her to leave the woman she loves. We see how they first met – a clear case of lust at first sight – and despite neither of them acting on those desires when they first spot each other across a crowded room, they begin a relationship when Iris – quite literally – runs into Claude some weeks later. They marry and are initially happy, but Iris’s narrative soon shows a darker side to the relationship as we witness the truth about Claude as she becomes physically violent after a work party gone wrong. We then see Iris increasingly walking on eggshells, wondering if – and eventually when – Claude might strike her again.

I think that it’s difficult to portray domestic abuse and abusive relationships sensitively, but Lewis manages this successfully. What is perhaps is even more difficult to convey is why the victim seems to put up with it and chooses to stay rather than leaving their abuser. I think that Lewis addresses this point particularly well throughout the novel and while it’s hard to read about at times – Lewis so successfully evokes Iris’s fear when she spots the warning signs of Claude’s anger – I did understand why she stayed to a point, although it’s fair to say that I was happier knowing that she would leave eventually.

I’ve been asked that before, and really… I don’t have a good answer except I was afraid.

The after chapters show Iris in the days and weeks after she leaves Claude. There’s her initial mad dash to the Catskill Mountains and her fear that she’ll be caught by either Claude and / or the authorities once her disappearance has been discovered. Finding an abandoned hut, she starts trying to turn it into something resembling a home, despite the state of dilapidation and her lack of skills, equipment, and supplies. It seems like a futile exercise, and yet I couldn’t help but be pleased for Iris in making her escape, particularly as the alternating chapters show the truth of what she leaves behind. It doesn’t seem like a long term plan, and yet she begins to shape this little hut into something of her own, and there’s a sense of pride in achieving something away from the controlling Claude.

After taking a fall in bad weather, Iris meets a woman who is hiking. A woman who is almost identical to Iris, who is called Iris, and who has more in common with Iris than should be possible. As the two women find that they can’t leave, they must work together to understand what has brought them together and how they get out of the unusual situation that they find themselves in. It’s through this mechanism that we see what Iris’s life might have been like had she made other choices – not just in terms of her relationship with Claude, but other, earlier decisions that she has come to regret. It’s something of a Sliding Doors moment as we see what might have been, but it’s not simply a case of the grass being greener and there’s a sense that their two lives have been different since a key point of divergence in Iris’s teens, but that the alternative Iris has still experienced difficulties of her own.

A different me, but unmistakably me.

I’d gone into the woods to find myself.

I found her. Literally.

Iris is such a wonderful character – one who is most definitely flawed and yet easy to sympathise with, particularly as we learn more about her and her circumstances. I love her enthusiasm for all things space related and found it to be infectious – I have a sudden urge to buy a telescope after reading this novel. Through the alternating before and after chapters, the reader gets a sense for how much her relationship with Claude has affected Iris – not just from being a victim of domestic abuse, but the way in which Claude has taken control over so many decisions on Iris’s behalf, shaping her into her ideal rather than letting Iris be herself. It’s wonderful to see her character evolve away from that control and to begin making those choices for herself, however daunting a process that is for her.

The Origins of Iris doesn’t fit neatly into any one genre. There’s a speculative fiction element, but it’s also a novel that explores relationships – of all kinds – and the way in which our past mistakes and regrets stay with us and affect our lives in ways we might not expect. It’s a fantastic novel that will sweep you away to New York and the Catskill Mountains, and one that I highly recommend.

The Origins of Iris will be published on 19 August by Hodder Studio. Huge thanks to Beth Lewis, Kate Keehan, and the publisher for the opportunity to read and review ahead of publication.

Disclaimer – I received a copy of this novel from the publisher.  This has in no way influenced my review.

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