Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

BooksAugust 27, 2023

Dice review: a harrowing, unforgettable debut novel

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Sam Brooks reviews Dice by Claire Baylis, a gut-punching story about a jury deliberating on a sexual assault trial.

Here’s a little insight into my process as a book reviewer: I take copious amounts of notes throughout, whether it’s jotting down my thoughts on a character, a development, a particularly notable turn of phrase, or transcribing a passage verbatim. If I have the luxury of a paper copy, I’ll dog-ear whole pages and sections that I want to refer back to. Most crucially, I try to read a book in one sitting, whether that’s at my desk, on my couch, or in varying modes of transit.

Dice, the debut novel from Claire Baylis, broke my process. I still took notes, of course. My copy is lightly dog-eared. But I absolutely could not read this book in one sitting. Just past the halfway point, I put the book down and decided to work on something else instead. It left me feeling viscerally ill. I felt heavy, like I’d eaten three dinners, but still had a full plate in front of me. I left the book on my desk and took almost two days to come back to it, which I never do with a book, review or otherwise.

This is, perhaps, the highest compliment that I can give Dice. You feel the weight of it. The novel follows the trial of four teenage boys accused of multiple sexual offences against three teenage girls, all stemming from the invention of a sex game based on the toss of a dice. The point of view characters, however, are the 12 jurors assigned to the case, and Baylis follows each of them as the three-week long trial unfolds, and, of course, as they deliberate.

There are two immediate reference points here. One is obviously 12 Angry Men, one of the best films of all time, and definitely the best to feature a cast of only 12 men. It’s not necessarily that Baylis’ novel follows the structure or even the tone of that film – she expands her world past that of the trial, giving us glimpses into the past, present and even future of each of the jurors, to further illuminate why they come to the conclusions that they come to. It’s simply just that 12 Angry Men is so great, so iconic, and so clearly the definitive “jury” story that it’s hard for any story that lives in this milieu not to sit a little languidly in its shadow.

The other, just as obviously, but more queasily, is the Roastbusters case. Hell, the very first sentence (“Jake added ‘Dice Bros’ to his search”) immediately stirred up memories of the coverage of that case. The saga barely needs any explanation, but for clarity’s sake: In 2013, a group of young men were accused of intoxicating underage girls to sexually assault them. After an 18 month investigation, no charges were laid due to a lack of evidence. The case was reopened in December 2020, with more complainants coming forward, and has yet to go to trial. (As an aside, Dice has been conceived, written and published before the Roastbusters story has come to a close. Let that sink in.)

Claire Baylis (right) with her debut novel, Dice.

Putting those comparisons aside, like distant relatives, Dice is one of the most assured debut novels I’ve read in some time. Baylis has clear control not only over her scenario, but is able to deploy and mould her voice to fit her diverse crew of jurors – a 19-year-old competitive swimmer, one of the only Māori in the room, feels as authentically rendered as the older busybody who rules her book club with a crocheted iron fist. More impressively, it never feels lurid or manipulative, even as the details of the trial are assessed and reassessed, as both prosecution and defence advocate for their side. The trial at hand feels as horrible as it should – “So if you were unconscious at the barbecue, as you claimed, and couldn’t remember what they supposedly did to you, why would you be scared of the boys?” sits with me, in particular – but the reader is shuttled through it as quickly as the jurors are. There’s no time to linger on the worst days of a few women’s lives, just time to litigate it.

Baylis renders the lives of her characters outside the trial with a gently warm omniscience. A swimming trial for the aforementioned athlete, Kahu, is the best depiction of competitive swimming I’ve read since probably Tessa Duder’s Alex. Even a character like Bethany, who seems entirely out of her depth and spends the trial drawing on her notebook, could be the butt of jokes elsewhere, but here the small frame of her world is simply rendered as another person’s reality:

“Bethany went to bed then – she didn’t like watching people hurt each other, and she didn’t want to watch sex stuff with her big sister and Ricky. She liked that they were there, though, on the other side of the divider. She’d smooth out her fleecy blanket and her stripy duvet, fluff up her pillows, and then she’d flick through Instagram or play Two Dots.”

I remain torn on whether the sprawl of Dice works to its favour, or if it feels too workshopped. Each of the 12 jurors seems to have a response, or a background relating to this case, that needs a chapter or two to fully explore. One character is so comically sleazy and creepy that sadly, it reads as entirely, bleakly reflective of someone who would end up on a jury for this sort of case, unchallenged. More than one character has had an experience with assault in the past, and dwells on it throughout the trial as they reflect on the evidence given. Towards the end of the book’s 300-odd pages, I felt myself ticking off the character list (helpfully provided at the start of the book) based on who we’d heard from and who we hadn’t.

Perhaps that is Baylis’ point. We carry our lives with us, an ever-growing bindle slung over our shoulder. We’re never really in a jury of our peers, because none of us have lived the same life. By that measure, how can we expect to be judged by a jury of our peers? Our peers have not walked a mile in our shoes, and have lived neither our best day nor our worst. As Dice hurtles to its inevitable end, it shines an unflattering spotlight on the legal system. It’s less that there is never an objective truth, a concrete set of facts to judge by; it’s whether we, as the subjective creatures that we are, are capable of putting that bindle down and looking at that truth straight in the eye.

Dice is a book that I will, on the digital pages of The Spinoff Books section, heartily recommend to everyone. It’s one of the best books I’ve read all year. There are feelings I had while reading this book that I’ll never forget; forget stomach churning, Baylis had a chokehold on my internal organs. But if someone in real life were to ask me to recommend a book, it couldn’t be further from my grasp. I wouldn’t want to put someone through the experience of reading it.

But right here and now I’ll say: go buy a copy of Dice. Put a hold on it at your library. Borrow it from a friend who probably wants to push it from their home, from their memory. You might regret it, but you won’t forget it.

Dice by Claire Baylis (Allen & Unwin NZ, $37), can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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