*** NEW YORK TIMES 100 NOTABLE BOOKS OF THE YEAR ***
A 52 year-old photographer and a 41 year-old anatomy professor are jurors sequestered during a sensational three-week trial: a toddler murdered by one of his twin sisters. At the court appointed cut-rate motel off the interstate, they fall into an intense, furtive affair, but it is only during deliberations that the lovers learn they are on opposing sides of the case. Suddenly they look at one another through an altogether different lens. After the trial, the photographer returns to her much older husband amidst an ongoing media frenzy over the case. But the judge has received an anonymous letter about the affair, and she is preparing to release the jurors names. From that point on, the photographer’s “one last dalliance before she is too old” takes on profoundly personal and moral consequences, as The Body in Question moves to its affecting, powerful, and surprising conclusion.
About the author
JILL CIMENT was born in Montreal, Canada. She has received many grants and awards, among them a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, two New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and a Guggenheim fellowship. A professor at the University of Florida, she lives in Gainesville, Florida, and Brooklyn, New York.
Excerpt: The Body in Question: A Novel (by (author) Jill Ciment)
Excerpted from Part One
"When that door opens, sign out. Say you’re taking a cigarette break,” he says.
“I don’t smoke,” she says.
“You don’t have to smoke, just sign out. If they call your number, ignore them.”
Neither notices the door open.
“A friend of mine got out just by saying he couldn’t sit under the words ‘In God We Trust,’ ” she says.
Her number is called, C-2.
“You have another angle?” she asks.
“If one of the lawyers asks if you’ve ever been involved with an attorney, tell him he picked you up in a bar five years ago.”
“You’re assuming the lawyer will be a man,” she says.
“Tell her she picked you up in a Lowe’s five years ago. She had the power sander, you had the tool belt.”
The second time her number is called, she rises reluctantly.
“Hey,” he calls after her as she makes her way between the uneven rows of folding chairs. “Good luck.”
C-2 is surprised to find the courtroom already in session. Everyone but the defendant, a girl in her late teens, looks up as C-2 takes the only empty chair in the jury box. The other five chairs are occupied by women of varying ages. Three sport flip-flops. One is dressed as if for a hot date. One wears church clothes.
The judge, an older African American woman with a no-nonsense haircut, asks the defendant to turn around in her chair and face the prospective jurors. The defendant’s head revolves so slowly that C-2 can’t discern whether the sluggishness is deliberate, to arrest the court’s attention, or if the teenager in the ill-fitting but very expensive clothes has something physically or mentally wrong with her. Her most striking feature is her hair: the bottom six inches are dyed shoe-polish black, the top six inches are Barbie blond.
C-2 has studied her share of faces. She started her career as a portrait photographer for Rolling Stone and Interview magazine until it finally sank in: she wasn’t interested in people. As individuals. She was interested in them as a species.
The defendant’s features are the kind found in how-to-draw books—sketchy and basic. If C-2 were to close her eyes, she doubts she would remember what is inside the blank oval a second later.
If C-2 had to wager a guess as to the teenager’s crime, she would bet shoplifting, or selling her grandmother’s Percocets to her classmates, or both. A one- or two-day trial at most.
The judge asks, “Do any of you recognize the defendant?”
Two hands shoot up.
“I saw her on TV,” says one of the flip-flop set.
“On Court TV,” says the woman who has removed her lip and nose rings out of respect for court.
The defendant’s counsel, a full-figured woman in her early thirties, and the jury consultant, a gray-haired gentleman in Armani, confer: the two women are dismissed. Two more potential jurors enter the court and take the vacated chairs: a woman who looks pregnant but is too old to be pregnant, and the young man with whom C-2 had been mildly flirting in the holding area—in his early forties, whereas C-2 is fifty-two—the one who had all the clever answers on how to get out of jury duty. He catches her attention and shrugs self-mockingly. His eyes are a blue that seems too crystalline to belong to his face, which is pitted with acne scars. Other than the church lady, he is the only one dressed appropriately for court; khakis, white shirt, closed shoes. C-2 is wearing cutoffs and a T-shirt. It is 95 degrees outside.
“This is a murder trial,” the judge says.
The defendant slides her eyes sideways in her expressionless face. C-2 follows the stare. It lands on a middle-aged woman seated in the front row of the gallery, her face an illustration of anguish. A blond replica of the defendant comforts the woman, but this version is prettier. Her face is vibrant, as if each feature were an individual puppet and she were the puppet master. If C-2 closed her eyes, she would remember that face.
“The trial may take up to three weeks,” the judge explains, “and may involve sequestration. Is there anyone who believes themselves incapable of fulfilling such an obligation?”
C-2’s standby excuse, that she couldn’t sit under “In God We Trust,” seems flippant, almost reprehensible to use given that the middle-aged woman is shuddering and imploding in the gallery. C-2 could tell the judge that her husband is eighty-six, the truth, and that she is his sole caretaker, her fear.
The woman too old to be pregnant and the man with the lucent blue eyes raise their hands.
“F-17,” the man introduces himself to the judge. “I’m a professor at the medical school. My Gross Anatomy course begins next week. I have twenty-one cadavers waiting for me.”
“Aren’t they already dead?” the judge asks.
Again that self-mocking shrug. “Yes,” he says.
“They can wait.”
The woman’s hand is still up. “J-12. I’m going in for tests next week,” she says.
The judge waits a beat for anyone else to speak up.
C-2 could still raise her hand. Though her husband retains his impressive, curious mind, he loses things daily—keys, words, height, mass, the ability to hear conversations, his peripheral vision (though he insists on still driving), the subtlety of taste, and the assault of smell. And most alarming, the loss of the sixth sense, proprioception, the ability to know the position of one’s body parts. Her husband isn’t always sure where his hands and feet are without having to look for them. It takes him a wooden moment to reach for things, to make those measurements one unconsciously calculates each time one dips under a low beam, or eats popcorn in the dark. He can still navigate the day’s obstacles, but for how much longer? C-2 is becoming his copilot. Her senses must work double-time shepherding two separate bodies through space, but to refuse the job—not to point out the broken step, not to repeat the punch line he couldn’t hear—will mean abandoning him in the woolly, dim, mute isolation of old age.
She met her husband when she was twenty-four and he was fifty-seven. He was a Pulitzer-winning journalist and she had just given up portraiture for something more dangerous. He had asked her to be his photographer on an assignment in El Salvador—civil war had broken out yet again. He had flown first-class, and she had flown economy. Not once during the seven-hour flight did he venture back into steerage to see how she was faring. That had cinched it for her: her attraction for him was an unreciprocated crush; he had only been interested in her photography.
At the San Salvador airport, they hitched a prearranged ride in a bus chartered by Hollywood’s radical chic, a director of conspiracy thrillers, an earnest actress, and her producer husband. The actress had come to interview the charming mustachioed general of the rebels. The van had to cross the mountains before nightfall and curfew. The road was a stretch of graveled ascent, bracketed with makeshift checkpoints manned by ragged boys with rifles.
The producer broke out a bottle of Valium and handed the pills around. C-2 noted that the war correspondent didn’t take one, so she didn’t either, even though she wanted one very badly.
She could tell she had passed some sort of test with him, and that having passed the test, the power had shifted between them. That night at the hotel, she was aware of him staring at her as she opened her door. The stare was electric. She had only recently accepted that her desire had less to do with whom she was attracted to, and everything to do with whom she wanted to attract.
She played her hand riskily, bet the house. She walked into his room while he was transcribing his notes, unbuttoned her blouse. He took over from there, for which she was thankful.
She didn’t—doesn’t—consider herself especially attractive. She makes a handsome first impression—a fit figure, a wedge of auburn hair, a long neck—but on second look, her left eyelid droops slightly, and the asymmetry cancels out her best feature, her wild eyebrows, which she grooms weekly. Just before she met her husband, the lid miraculously found its way open, lending her face an astonished look, and, unbeknownst to her, she became extremely beautiful. The lid sank again a year later, but by then she had already met her husband. More important, she had been given a tease of the charmed life she might have lived had her left eyelid been two millimeters higher.
The first time her husband introduced her to his mother, eighty-seven years old and living in a Jewish retirement home in Buffalo, the old woman took one glance at C-2, at the apex of her beauty, then looked at her middle-aged son and asked a question that C-2, at twenty-four, hadn’t yet thought to ask herself: Who is going to take care of him in his old age?
If C-2 is sequestered, she will only have to take care of herself—a much-needed respite justified by civic duty. If something should happen—the dreaded fall—there is always the alternate to take her place.
The judge is still waiting.
C-2 doesn’t raise her hand.
The jury box is now full, five women including C-2, and two men, F-17 and the twitchy alternate with the hectic buzz cut who doesn’t pay attention when the judge explains what a voir dire is. The alternate is too busy admiring the defense counsel, the woman in her early thirties with the disruptively full figure. C-2 notes a shimmer when the young woman crosses her legs under the table. She is wearing nylons in August in Central Florida.
To C-2’s left, the woman in her mid-sixties who had identified herself as a homemaker and member of the First Calvary Baptist congregation raises her hand. “Where’s our other half?” she asks the judge. “Aren’t there supposed to be twelve of us?”
“Florida only requires a six-person jury in all but capital cases,” the judge explains.
The prosecutor, rotund, places both hands flat on the table and jacks himself up. He struggles to button his suit, gives up, and then flashes the jury an aw-shucks grin to let them know he is a local boy, not someone hired from South Florida. He rifles through the questionnaires the jury had filled out earlier that day, with all their stats—profession, married or single, children, felonies—and asks if anyone has concerns about being able to wait until they’ve heard all the evidence before making up their minds.
C-2 has never had the patience to listen to someone else’s story and not try to guess the ending. But guessing the ending is different than calcifying into certitude. She would be willing to switch sides if persuaded, but that wouldn’t stop her from speculating. Who honestly imagines themselves to be that neutral and fair?
She glances around at the other potential jurors. They are all nodding affirmatively, certain of their neutrality and fairness, except F-17.
He raises his hand. “Isn’t the belief that you won’t rush to judgment proof that you will?” he says.
C-2 can see that he hopes his syllogism will get him dismissed.
But the prosecutor looks away, as if a new idea has just occurred to him. “Do you read the newspaper?” he asks the woman seated directly in front of C-2. The chairs in the back row sit on a riser. C-2 can see the woman’s scalp through her cornrows. The woman is white and the stalks blond. The ruts in between are sunburned.
“H-8,” the woman says. “I use the newspaper for my parrot’s droppings.”
“Let’s talk about doubt,” the prosecutor says. “Reasonable doubt versus an abiding conviction of doubt.”
The church lady raises her hand. “What does ‘abiding’ mean?”
“The court isn’t allowed to define terms,” the judge intervenes. “And you can’t look up the word on your smartphone tonight. You aren’t allowed to consider any information, including the definition of a word, outside this court. I dismissed a juror last year for looking up ‘prudent.’”
The prosecutor studies his polished shoes until the judge finishes. “Let’s talk about common sense,” he says, walking over to the church lady. “How did you decide what to eat for breakfast?”
“I looked in my fridge.”
“So you accepted the evidence before you and made a decision.”
“I had scrambled eggs.”
“Okay, let’s take a more important decision, one that you had to think hard about.” He looks over at F-17. “Are you married?”
“No,” F-17 says.
“You?” the prosecutor asks C-2.
“How did you decide to marry your husband?”
“Our accountant told us we would save money on taxes,” she says.
They’d been living together for over five years. They loved each other. The money could be spent on a vacation, something they had never allowed themselves. They had traveled extensively on assignment, but only to places where the tourists had fled. This time they decided to go somewhere exotic where there wasn’t a war. But without a war, they almost killed each other.
“So you would say your decision making is more swayed by facts than emotion?” asks the prosecutor.
“Yes,” C-2 says.
A hand goes up, the twitchy alternate’s. “Why are you asking us all these questions? Why don’t they have professional jurors?”
“A fantastic rendering of female desire . . . Few writers can tackle the bedroom—or female libido . . . but Ciment is a master: in exquisitely spare prose, she nails it.”
—Penelope Green, The New York Times
“[The] deft orchestration of absurdity and existential dread distinguishes Ciment's style. That's why the situation of Ciment's latest novel, The Body in Question, is so perfectly suited to her powers as a novelist . . . incisive . . . a profound story about mortality and the mysteries of human behavior . . . smart and disturbing.”
—Maureen Corrigan, NPR
“Engaging, empathetic . . . This honest, mature look at life and love adds to a growing body of evidence leading to a decisive verdict: Ciment is an author well worth reading.”
—Kirkus (starred review)
“Stark and absorbing . . . scathingly funny . . . a smart, compact, refreshingly unsentimental exploration of the persistence of desire amid the fact of death.”
— The Wall Street Journal
“Excellent . . . short and brisk, propelled by the suspense of multiple questions . . . deft and gripping.”
—Curtis Sittenfeld, The New York Times
“Stunningly concise. . . . Pulled me in right off the first page. It’s a bravura performance, Ciment exercising almost flamboyant control of her material.”
—Emily Donaldson, The Globe and Mail (Canada)
“Ciment . . . a virtuoso of the situational novel, has created a hypnotizing, forked tale of trust and guilt, masks and doubling, lies and desire, life and death.”
“Intriguing, swift-moving. . . . This novel will hook readers with its powerful, magnetic narrative.”
“This book’s lean style and cool tone shape an unsentimental story with unexpected depths. . . . Ciment gives her story a series of wicked twists, some thrilling, some heart-wrenching.”
—The Tampa Bay Times