Review: Consent by Annabel Lyon
Women’s Prize progress: 9/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)
In this novel, two sets of sisters have grown into adulthood in imbalanced sibling relationships. Sara and Saskia both knew from young ages that their respective sisters were not neurotypical, resulting in higher levels of care and consideration- and lower expectations of achievement- from their families. Later in life, Sara and Saskia both find themselves (independently) in caregiving roles of greater primacy, having to attend to and make choices for their sisters in ways that their parents can’t or won’t. Both situations are further complicated as Sara and Saskia each pursue someone she believes to have taken advantage of her sister in some way, all while questioning whether she shares the blame for her sister’s fate. At this point, the two parallel narratives collide.
“‘You were her better self,’ David says. ‘And she was yours.’ / Sara hangs up the phone. I was her punishment, certainly, she thinks, taking the empty suitcase out from under the bed. As she was mine. But remind me again of our crime?“
Consent is a juicy little book that delves into various forms of consent through two complicated sister relationships. Lyon beautifully demonstrates how sisters- even twins- can be simultaneously alike and unique, how they can need each other and loathe each other, how they can get things wrong and still remain inextricably bonded together. (I do not have a sister, but Lyon made me feel as though I did.) With this setup, she explores that connection of sisterhood in parallel with the question of mental capacity for consent- what can a neurodivergent person consent to practically, sexually, medically, legally? What if they are not officially diagnosed? Whose word can be trusted when claiming consent was obtained? If consent cannot be given, who then will make the choice? What if that mediator (inevitably) has motives of their own?
“We always knew something was wrong, but the doctors wouldn’t diagnose her until she was an adult. They said she might outgrow her symptoms. She never cared about other people, about pleasing them or hurting them. She stole both my high school boyfriends just because she could.“
While this book is very focused on two very specific cases of sisterhood and consent, and is more of a multiple-character study than an “issues book” dripping with direct social commentary, there’s clearly plenty of thematic depth to give this story some heft. Lyon’s crisp and direct prose certainly bears weight as well.
What really won me over though, is that on top of the literary strengths of the novel, Lyon also offers a fun mystery/thriller-esque element to the plot for a bonus dose of drama. Readers who like thrills and surprises may appreciate that Consent skews this way, though I wouldn’t recommend this book as a mystery/thriller because the twists are more like icing on top than the main dish here. The thrill also doesn’t quite land perfectly- the pacing is off, especially in the final section of the book when the reader is suddenly excluded from Sara and Saskia’s interiority in a way that belies the rest of the book, and the final events do seem a bit convenient and far-fetched, but (fictional) murder always keeps things interesting.
The other area in which this story faltered for me harks back to the title of this review- where you may have noticed that I have referred to the main characters of this book as “fashionistas,” an aspect of their characterization I’ve not mentioned again thus far. The crux of the matter is that while I found the dialogue and anecdotes around the art of fashion in this book fascinating, I also thought this passion felt completely irrelevant to the rest of this story. It is possible I’m missing something, I know that as a reader I tend to struggle with books about art- especially visual art- so this is something of a blind spot for me. There are certainly a few key moments where the treatment of clothing or perfume tells us something crucial about Sara and/or Saskia and their closest relationships, because fashion is their language, but somehow their love for fashion never feels properly coupled to the rest of this story. They could have been into gaming or artisanal cheese and it would have fit the book just as well, is what I mean- the dedication to clothing specifically struck me as somewhat lifeless and arbitrary, for the sake of shoehorning in some personality. Though the fashion focus never exactly feels insincere, and can be incredibly interesting, I was never fully convinced this book needed it at all, despite the impressive amount of page space Lyon dedicates to it. An interest in reading about art or fashion in particular is going to be a must for prospective readers, I think.
“Anyway, she did not have so many clothes. She curated and edited her collection relentlessly.”
It’s also worth noting there’s some repeated racism against a Korean man throughout this book, from one particular character, which I believe is meant to reflect poorly on the character speaking this way and to demonstrate the effect such a mannerism can have on a neurodivergent character who hears it often and doesn’t have full grasp on the concept of racism, but whether the slurs crop up more often than strictly necessary to make the point is debatable.
CWs: racism (including anti-Asian slurs), murder, death of a loved one, alcoholism
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. There were a few ups and downs here for me, but on the whole I was pleasantly surprised, found the read enjoyable and memorable, and am glad that the Women’s Prize longist nudged me to pick this one up. If you’re a prize reader who tends to like the more literary-leaning options from the lists regardless of how far they advance with the judges, this would probably be a great title to pick up.
The Literary Elephant