15 August 2013

In a Lonely Place

It's been a while since I read a book that was both gripping and well written. I've already worked my way through most of my to-read list for the Southwark library system and they can be pretty slow to order in new books, so my reading selections have been a bit ad hoc. I enjoyed Lauren Beukes' The Shining Girls, a sort of sci-fi, noir thriller set in Chicago at various times during the 20th century, but it wasn't one of those books I would rush home from work to finish. J. Courtney Sullivan's The Engagements, as with her previous two books, was fun and well-observed, if sometimes frothy, and I powered through Waiting for Wednesday, as I have done with all of Nicci French's Frieda Klein series, but it wasn't exactly thought-provoking.

Enter How To Be a Good Wife, Emma Chapman's debut novel. This book has been on my wishlist for a few months and I finally picked it up from the library last week. The title reminded me of a book I read last year, called How To Be an American Housewife, by Margaret Dilloway, which is about a young Japanese woman who meets an American GI during the war and goes back to the States to marry him, guided by a book which shares its name with the title of the novel. If you like The Joy Luck Club and its ilk, you'll probably enjoy Dilloway's novel.

Chapman's book is quite different, both in content and in style, although the protagonist, a middle-aged woman living in an unspecified Scandinavian country, also seeks guidance from an outdated book, How To Be a Good Wife, which was given to her by her mother-in-law. As the novel opens, we can tell that something isn't quite right. Marta's grown son has just left the nest to move in with his girlfriend in the city. Never entirely emotionally stable, Marta now finds herself at an emotional loss. She stops taking her medication, despite the efforts of her much-older husband Hector, who grows increasingly concerned about his wife as she becomes more pensive and vacant, and then seems to lose the plot at a dinner where she meets her son's fiancĂ©e for the first time. Marta also starts to see a young blonde girl — sometimes happy and healthy, sometimes sad and bedraggled — but no one else seems to notice her.

As the novel progresses, we start to learn a little more about Marta's past. She met Hector when she was very young and he "saved" her after her parents' tragic death. The trouble is that she can remember almost nothing about her life before Hector or about her parents' death. But is something sinister lurking beneath the surface or is Marta really still suffering from a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder? She stops taking her medication to try to find the truth, but what if her unmedicated mind is just creating more problems and failing to arrive at any solutions?

For the reader, the problem is confounded by the fact that the entire novel is narrated in the first-person by Marta herself. We only have her take on events and feelings, and ultimately, when it comes to the ending, it is down to the reader to decide how reliable Marta's testimony is. Chapman wrote the novel — and particularly the ending — this way intentionally, in order to leave it up to the reader. I would have preferred a few more hints as to what the "right" answer might have been.

At only 256 pages, How To Be a Good Wife is fairly concise. It's not a thriller in the Nicci French sense; it's much more subtle than that and sustains an intense sense of unease throughout. It's also quite a lonely novel — Marta is often quite isolated, physically as well as emotionally — and a quiet one. It certainly doesn't have much in common with most of the ubiquitous Scandi-thrillers. Haunting, sad and ethereally beautiful, How To Be A Good Wife poses a lot more questions than it answers, but the themes of love, loss and memory have resonated with me since I finished reading it.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous08:52

    This is the kind of book that stays with you long after you've finished reading. Quietly superb.
    I loved that you, just didn't know the answers. It was like you get to know her as much as you can get to truly know anyone you become friends with. You may have suspicions but without hard facts you just don't know, that's the scary thing that lingers, that it's so like life.
    Can't wait for another book,