Over the past few years there has been a massive and disturbing onslaught against women online in the form of trolling and virtual stalking, and so, a book like Now Following You is as timely as it is necessary. Even though it is a fictional thriller, it provides an opportunity to make real the fear, anger, and courage of women who have experienced this kind of harassment. That is why it was such a disappointment that I failed to feel any of these while reading this book. If a story is going to be marketed as a thriller, it needs to give the reader some chills, or at least, have some kind of twist or surprise at the end.
A big part of the problem is the main character Jamie Burchell. Jamie is a single, headstrong woman, addicted to social media. When she isn’t running her trendy coffee-shop in an upmarket Joburg suburb, she’s on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, documenting her every move. This is partly to help promote her blog, where she posts chapters of a book she’s writing, in the hopes that someone will notice and agree to publish it.
But it’s a stalker who really sits up and notices. The unnamed man begins to follow Jamie, leaving her ‘gifts’, like a dog crucified to the gate of her house. Jamie finds some solace in the arms of her good-looking neighbour, Ben. But instead of a complex relationship, some of their interactions are too reminiscent of Danielle Steele to be taken seriously, like this sex scene:
“Everything about his kiss was new and stimulating, but somehow also familiar, as though she were remembering something she’d once had a long time ago.
Excitement leapt in him as she plastered her long body against him. You’d never know to look at her that she would be so soft to touch. As the kiss deepened, he allowed his hands to travel over the swell of her bottom and into the hollow of her waist. Desire strained at him. He struggled to control it, to remember the circumstances.
Jamie longed to give herself over to the moment, to allow them to take each other on the spot, or perhaps stagger as far as the sofa. The horror of what they’d been through demanded this exorcism.
His hands flashed up to cup her breasts, so firm and perfectly rounded.”
Instead of coming across as courageous, Jamie appears silly. Of course, many women who are stalked and trolled online do decide not to close their social media accounts, but their personal stories of what’s happening to them are harrowing and infuriating. My difficulty in connecting with Jamie as a character made it hard to empathise. It’s not her defiance of her stalker (she continues to post every threat she receives online) that’s bothersome but her tedious penchant for making public every single other aspect of her life and all its mini-tragedies (problems with her neighbour, tensions with her co-worker), in order to, by her own admission, get supportive comments and ‘likes’ from strangers. Her followers can’t get enough of reading about the perpetrator and each of his threats, and so, she continues writing about him in order to get more traction for her book. (Perhaps I’m being harsh. An overwhelming part of social media participation is unapologetically self-indulgent – a search for sympathy or commiseration. But it’s as excruciatingly annoying in book form as it is in real life.) She includes the precise locations of where she as at every single moment of the day. Come on Jamie, social media 101: turn off the location functions so your movements cannot be tracked at all times.
The decision by many women to remain online despite horrifically violent threats is indeed a brave one. Their refusal to let men police women’s bodies or chip away at their strides in ‘male dominions’, like gaming and sport, are inspiring. However, that doesn’t mean these women don’t take any measures at all to protect themselves. Many of them recommend turning off location services on social media, and being careful not to post personal data like home addresses on the Internet. Not Jamie though.
Part of the story is told from the stalker’s point of view. It’s not clear exactly how he found Jamie and exactly why he decided to target her, apart from his appreciation of her social media photographs, because she doesn’t “lie” about her appearance. The reader might be more frightened if his POV was kept out of the story completely, or was only added towards the end. This would have served to mirror real life experiences of social media stalking: the anonymity of the perpetrators, not knowing what they’re thinking or what their next move might be. The plot would have been more intriguing if the reader is drawn into this fear, by having to guess at an uncertain future.
Now Following You is a lightweight approach to a very dark and disturbing subject matter.
This book is published by Modjaji Books.