When a relationship ends, there are oftentimes different versions that tell how said love affair reached the end of the line. Frequently, the ‘he said, she said’ are not the only elements that arise in the narrative of a breakup, but additionally friends, family and acquaintances pile on to make muddy version of grey areas where the truth lays somewhere in between. In Araminta Hall’s novel Our Kind of Cruelty, the real version of what happens when a couple ends their heated but somewhat disturbing relationship, is anything but black and white.
When Mike and Verity meet, their overwhelmingly different upbringings and personalities spark an attraction that makes everyone around them question their union from the start. Verity comes from a privileged and overly protective family, with a mother who desires nothing more than to see her daughter married off to to a man who can offer her wealth and prosperity. Mike comes from a broken home, a victim of childhood violence who has found a familial oasis with his foster parents who love him as if he was their own child.
But Verity hides dark fantasies behind a prim facade, fantasies that Mike is all too willing to provide to make her happy. They play a game called the Crave, a role-play scenario involving unsuspecting third parties with whom Verity pretends to flirt with only for Mike to show up and claim her in front of another man.
The game ignites both Mike and Verity to unbound limits, compelling them to have sizzling passionate sex in public. Many times this occurs after Verity has openly made herself available to another man in front of Mike, with one episode in particular almost ending in physical violence. Once they engage in a heated ménage à trois with another woman, upping the stakes in how far they are willing to go.
Hall is a magnificent storyteller, weaving Verity and Mike’s past and present to give insight to the beginning of their love affair and the way it eventually ends. It’s anything except a friendly breakup, their relationship crumbling when Mike moves to America for a job and makes a tragic mistake which he confesses to Verity, inadvertently breaking things off between them when Verity refuses to forgive him for it. But unbeknownst to Mike, Verity has her own agenda that justifies her harshness, which Mike will not be aware of until much later.
Neither Mike nor Verity are likeable characters, and Hall has no issue in exploiting and exposing their weaknesses and delusions. Mike has an almost obsessive adoration for Verity, refusing to see the more flawed and human side of her which ultimately feeds into his own self-deception. Even after their breakup and Verity about to marry another man, Mike is convinced that she will come back to him. That her upcoming nuptials are part of the Crave, that Verity is going as far as marrying another man to see just how far Mike will go for her. He commends Verity, or V as he affectionately calls her, on making him an attractive man, a man other women would want:
Since V got her hands on me women have always found me attractive. I never used to notice, but V taught me how to look for the signs. She used to say we should reverse Crave, but I never saw the appeal in that. V sculpted me into what she jokingly called the perfect man and she wasn’t happy until every part of me was as defined as a road map.
Mike’s apparent narcissism may appear of his own doing, but there is evidence throughout the story that Verity has her fair share of responsibility in creating it. Conversely, we only have Mike’s point of view in the novel, so it may not be like that at all. He may be the most unreliable narrator of them all, but Verity’s actions speak against any pretense of innocence.
Despite having a successful career and achieving admirable financial status, Mike still can’t let go of Verity and his conviction that they will be together. Receiving an email where she outlines her love for her future husband while apologizing for how she treated him when their relationship ended, and then going to her wedding does nothing to prove Mike wrong. Everything that Verity does is a hint, a sign, a signal for him to act and prove his love for her. A encounter with Verity on the street which Mike orchestrates after days of stalking her, cinches his conviction even more after they say their goodbyes:
I wonder if that’s what alcoholics feel like when they have a drink after a long time sober. As if every nerve ending has been smoothed, all your blood warmed, your mind stroked. I walked like I was on a cloud, I’m surprised I didn’t glide, I didn’t rise into the sky and float above the hordes of people on the pavement.
It’s simple enough to declare Mike an obsessive stalker and Verity the victim of a man who cannot seem to let her go. But despite the limited first person narrative, Verity doesn’t come across as victim-like, even through the lens of Mike’s adoration. Who is lying? Who is telling the truth? Is everything a figment of Mike’s imagination, or is Verity a masterful manipulator?
When the final chips fall and truths blend with the lies, we are left more confused than ever. Our Kind of Cruelty has no easy resolution, and Hall doesn’t seem to have a problem with leaving us in the dark. It all comes down to who you believe and what version of the truth seems more plausible.