Jill Ciment’s short novel, The Body in Question, opens with a scene that feels very familiar to many Americans: sharing tips for getting out of jury duty. We tend to treat jury duty as a game—at least on sitcoms and in casual conversation. The goal is to get out of something that we see as a hassle. I have a different response to a jury summons. I feel anxious. Granted, a lot of things make me anxious, but I feel as though serving on a jury would be a terrible responsibility. I hope I never have to serve because I don’t know if I’d be able to vote guilty, knowing that the sentencing is out of my hands for the most part. I also don’t like the American adversarial version of trials. It bothers me that there’s so much performance and emotional appeals in a trial; I’d rather deal with facts and be able to ask my own questions. The main character of this novel, C-2 (later revealed to be named Hannah), doesn’t feel any of my anxieties about serving on a jury in a murder case. Instead, she finds all sorts of other things to worry about.
Like many Americans, Hannah sees jury duty as a bit of a hassle. It will take her away from her work. More importantly, it will take her away from her much older husband, whose health is starting to seriously decline. Who will look out for him if Hannah is sequestered with a jury? But even though she has a decent reason to be excused, Hannah doesn’t say anything when the judge asks if anyone cannot serve. It’s hard to say why Hannah decides to stay on the jury. It might be the flirtation she has struck up with another juror. It might be what she sees when she looks at the accused that draws her sympathy. At any rate, Hannah is placed on a jury in an unnamed Florida county and is almost immediately sequestered.
The case that Hannah is on is a terrible one. Anca, the accused, is an adopted orphan from Romania. Her defense attorney and the prosecutor both allude to mental illness and autism, though we never learn if Anca has been officially diagnosed with anything. She has been dosed to the gills with antipsychotics. The medication makes her seem flat, unemotional, unresponsive, and shifty because one of the side effects is excessive blinking. The more we learn about Anca, her twin, and the crime she’s accused of, the more I wondered what was really going on. I really thought that something was definitely wrong about the story the prosecutor was trying to sell; I was definitely on Anca’s side.
Hannah, however, wasn’t entirely focused on doing her job as a juror. Instead, she’s more interested in having an affair with F-17 (later revealed to Graham). The two of them share notes to each other as much as they take notes about the case. When they’re sequestered at a local motel, they do everything they can to be together. If it weren’t for the trial, it would be like they are on a vacation. They’re not just sequestered from the media; they’re sequestered from their ordinary lives. But their distraction and all they don’t know about each other come to a head when the jury is directed to find a verdict.
Once the verdict has been delivered and Hannah has to return to her regular life, everything she wasn’t thinking about comes back to bite her. The last third of this book is a whirlwind of consequences. I wish that The Body in Question was longer. I wanted to know more about Anca and get to the bottom of what really happened. (I wasn’t disappointed so much as curious.) Instead of turning in a full-blown mystery, this book is more down to earth with its focus on Hannah and the fallout from her actions. There is plenty here for readers to think and talk about, even if the book doesn’t get down into the nitty-gritty of the American justice system. This is a great, fast read that would be a brilliant choice for book groups.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.