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All thrillers are built on eliciting the emotion of fear from the reader by building up the suspense, this is exactly how thrillers work, yet, very few of them are such an honest, many-sided and detailed exploration of fear as B.A. Paris's debut novel "Behind Closed Doors" (2016). The book does not contain any blood-thirsty sharks, alien monsters or evil spirits, the action takes place in a suburban home of a 'perfect' couple with a fitting family name - the Angels, but it offers the readers all possible shades of fear - from mild, ordinary anxiety to intense, paralyzing dread. As one of the reviewers, Emily May puts it, "this is a truly frightening book, a disturbing book. Scarier than any horror with demons and monsters" (May). Muriel Dobbin from The Washington Times, calls Grace, the protagonist, "an example of what a frightened woman can be reduced to" (Dobbin). But, as it becomes obvious as the plot progresses, Grace is also an example of what a woman can do when she is determined to overcome her fear for the sake of a loved one. Eleanor Roosevelt's famous quote runs, "you gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face" ("Eleanor Roosevelt Quotes"). This is precisely what "Behind Closed Doors" does - it looks fear in the face. So, "fear" would clearly be the word to define B.A. Paris's "Behind Closed Doors:" it is a book that tells a story about the way fear can saturate human lives, nourish or ruin them, but it is also a story about looking the fear in the face and overcoming it.
"Fear" is a word that seems to be quite simple, but can provoke very serious considerations when looked at more closely. The Oxford Living Dictionaries define "fear" as "an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm" ("Fear"), adding that "fear for" is "a feeling of anxiety concerning the outcome of something or the safety of someone" ("Fear"). Both meanings are perfectly reflected in B.A. Paris's novel where the protagonist is as much afraid for her own freedom, physical and mental health, and safety as for her sister Millie's life and well-being. The novel is an exploration of Grace's journey into the very depths of fear and back. Medical sources offer a more extended definition of fear as "as a motivational state aroused by specific stimuli that give rise to defensive behavior or escape" (Steimer). This definition includes a reaction to fear which is an indispensable part of the emotion: "Fear or anxiety result in the expression of a range of adaptive or defensive behaviors, which are aimed at escaping from the source of danger or motivational conflict" (Steimer). There are passive and active coping strategies that human beings use to deal with (Steimer). "Behind Closed Doors" explores all the stages of being afraid and coming to grips with fear: when Grace starts to feel fear, her fear grows, she is paralyzed by it, and, finally, she chooses 'active coping strategies' over the passive ones her primary motive being the love for her sister Millie.
From the very beginning, when the reader does not know anything yet about Jack's cruel nature and Grace's terrible lot, the book is thoroughly interspersed with the emotion of fear. Fear is hinted at in the very first sentence, when "the champagne bottle knocks against the marble kitchen counter" (Paris 1) and makes Grace jump. Though this little incident seems quite innocent at first, the reader soon understands that Grace's emotional state is extremely fragile and that she is profoundly afraid of her husband. The author uses the souffles as a kind of litmus paper to show how stressed Grace is - even about very trivial, routine things. As the narrator describes her dinner preparations, she says, "... I breathe a sigh of relief that the souffles are nowhere near ready. If they were, I would be near to tears with stress at the delay..." (Paris 7). It becomes obvious that there is something bigger behind Grace's anxiety about the impression she has to make upon her guests. This feeling is reinforced by the description of the setting. The way the house is presented at the very beginning of the book explicitly says that the Angels are afraid of something or/and obsessed with security:
Set in large grounds at the far end of the village, it gives Jack the privacy he craves, as well as the privilege of owning the most beautiful house in Spring Eaton. And the most secure. There is a complicated alarm system, with still shutters to protect the windows on the ground floor (Paris 3)
This setting gives out three key ideas about Jack: he does not want to be disturbed, prefers to keep up the appearances and is afraid of something. Thus, the first line of the book, the opening of the novel, the setting set the tone for the book and define the reader's expectations, clearly stating that "Behind Closed Doors" is a story about fear.
Indeed, the lives of the characters in B.A. Paris's novel are filled with fear from the very start. Everybody is afraid of something. Even before Grace meets Jack, she is profoundly afraid of the future. Most of all, she is afraid of feeling lonely. "... I was beginning to despair of ever getting married and having a family" (Paris 22), she says, and goes on to add that though she loves her sister dearly but the very thought of "growing old together" filled her with dread (Paris 22). She is often afraid that Millie would do something that could be embarrassing and cause people to laugh at her. When she meets Jack, she fears being rejected when she says, "I waited for him to add 'with my wife and children,' so I stole a look at his left hand and when I saw that he wasn't wearing a wedding ring I felt such a rush of relief I had to remind myself it didn't mean anything" (Paris 24). Grace's parents are afraid of the possibility of having to take care of Millie because of her Down syndrome and their wish to have a carefree retirement in New Zealand, and Jack cunningly makes use of "their dread that ... they would end up having to look after Millie themselves" (Paris 95). In this family fear is a skeleton in the cupboard, the existence of which is yet unknown only to Millie thanks to her developmental peculiarities.
This hidden fear is what attracts Jack in the first place. Jack is a kind of an emotional vampire: he feeds off other people's fear. A successful lawyer, he used his job to find emotional energy he could live by. He is famous for making the abused women, who "don't have anybody to turn to and are scared they won't be believed" (Paris 11), speak openly. Grace realizes that fear is what makes Jack feel alive and that he is in constant search for new sources of this emotion. This is when her fear for herself becomes intensified by her fear for the others: she honestly admits, "my experience the second time round was made even worse by the knowledge that when Jack wasn't with me, he was exhilarating in someone else's fear" (Paris 191). But this ample and diverse 'diet' is not enough for Jack: he wants to have access to his portion of fear on a daily basis, this is why he needs Millie whom he wants to keep "locked up in a terrifying room in the basement so that he could feed off her fear whenever he wanted" (Paris 216). He confesses his plans to Grace by saying in his usual self-complacent, unfeeling manner, "I'm not going to kill Millie, Grace, I'm just going to scare her a little" (Paris 148). He anticipates the relish when he asks Grace to imagine how scared Millie would be in that dreadful room in the basement (Paris 193). Ironically, this seeming triumph of Jack over Grace is the watermark moment that changes the lives of the characters: Grace's love for her sister gives her courage to face her fear and fight it.
At first glance it might seem to the reader that Jack is Grace's archenemy, yet, it is only partially true - ultimately, it is fear that keeps her a prisoner. In the flash-forward at the very beginning of the book, the protagonist reveals that she is aware of the corrupting power of fear when she says, "I feel a momentary wave of panic that I might not be able to pull everything off, but reminding myself that fear is my enemy I try to remain calm ..." (Paris 5). It is fear that Grace is fighting throughout the book. As early as their honeymoon in Thailand, Grace understands that Jack is a man to be feared. She tries to escape multiple times but as her attempts fail one after another, she loses hope. "I longed to tell my parents the truth, to beg them to help me, but with Jack's arm heavy on my shoulder, the courage to say anything at all never came," confesses Grace. The dread makes her keep a low profile and do whatever Jack demands. Muriel Dobbin sees Grace's paralysis of will as "the weakness of the well-tailored plot" stating that "Grace is an intelligent, educated woman trapped in a hideous situation and she could try to defend herself sooner than she does" (Dobbin). Yet, it should rather be seen as an honest attempt to face fear as it is - a force that can petrify any human being, drain of all the vital energy and prevent from thinking clearly.
Yet, as the threat over Millie's had is becoming more and more real, Grace realizes she has to do something to save her sister. "... I love Millie more than life itself and wouldn't change her for the world. Just thinking about her gives me new resolve..." (Paris 15), she says. Grace's love for Millie is so strong and genuine that she values her sister's life and happiness above her own. This feeling helps her move from 'passive coping strategies' to the active ones. Once the first steps are made, the hope returns. "I felt humbly grateful to Millie for stepping in and forcing me to take charge again" (Paris 233), admits the narrator. Seeing how much afraid Millie is of Jack, Grace manages to look her own fear in the face and to conquer it. It does not mean she is not afraid anymore. She is even more afraid than before because now she has to worry about her plot and all the possible ways it can go wrong. But the important thing is that she has taken charge of her life once again, she is acting and that is what makes her a braveheart.
B.A. Paris's novel turns out to be not only a book about all the different shades of fear, but also about the other side of the coin - courage. Nelson Mandela said that courage is "not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it" ("Nelson Mandela Quotes") and that "the brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear" ("Nelson Mandela Quotes"). "Behind Closed Doors" explores how fear operates both on the macro and micro levels. One short episode from the book can serve as a model of the whole story: "I yelled for help over and over again. But nobody came, and, distraught, I sank to the floor and wept. It took me a while to pull myself together," relates Grace (Paris 102). On a larger scale, this is what the whole book is about - the protagonist falls apart under the corrupting effect of fear and despair, but she finds the strength to pull herself together. The source for this strength is her love for Millie. Thus, the book explores the idea that love and fear are inseparable. One is bound to fear for the loved ones. When one loves truly, the universe stops being centered around the self. Another human being becomes precious, even more valuable than one's own life. This is why fear is only a natural reaction to any threat that might ruin the happiness of the loved one. But real love always ultimately turns out to be stronger than fear. This message turns the dark, intense and chilly read into a fairy-tale about Grace who manages to kill the dragon of fear.
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