Sunday, 24 March 2013

Book review: How To Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman

How To Be a Good Wife (2013) by Emma Chapman

In an unspecific Scandinavian setting, a woman called Marta is beginning to remember strange things. The book opens with her realising - with some surprise at herself - that she is a smoker. As the story progresses, she starts to be haunted by increasingly strong and bizarre visions of a young girl, who seems to be trying to tell her something. Marta is revealed to have a certain set of beliefs about her life: her parents died in an accident when she was a teenager, and she was found in a state of confusion and physical weakness by Hector, a teacher twenty years her senior. When she recovered, they married, and she has lived with Hector ever since - a restricted existence in which she never ventures beyond the limits of the local village, and lives according to the rules set out in How To Be a Good Wife, an old-fashioned book given to her by Hector's domineering mother. She has also spent most of her life unquestioningly taking pills which Hector gives her every day, and it is her decision to stop taking the medication that results in the visions - or memories - starting to appear.

This is a cold, cold book. Marta's home (and, it seems, her marriage) is cold and devoid of colour or emotion: so is the world that surrounds her, and so is the dialogue. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I was quickly drawn in to Marta's frustration, her feelings of helplessness and lack of control. Because she has had such a rigidly controlled life, Marta thinks like a child, making it difficult for her to outwit Hector or make any effort to escape. I did find it hard not to get frustrated that Marta didn't try to get away or get some external help earlier than she did. I know the point was to illustrate that Marta could be imagining things, but there was never any doubt in my mind that she wasn't, and I desperately wanted her to get away and for Hector to be punished.

I was caught off-guard by the ending, which is sadder and braver than I expected it to be. I was disappointed because the resolution that I expected was never provided, but also pleased, because the author didn't take the obvious route. The narrative is deliberately vague and very cleverly written - it's natural for the reader to want to sympathise with Marta, as the story is written from her point of view, but it is also easy to see how irrational her behaviour would seem to an outsider. And because what really happened in the beginning is never made clear, it's left to the reader to make up his or her own mind about whether Marta is mad or the victim of a terrible conspiracy. This ends up making the book seem more enigmatic and elegant, but I wonder if it's actually a bit deceptive: by refusing to reveal the truth, the author has avoided having to write a conclusion that would have inevitably cheapened the story no matter what form it took.

How To Be a Good Wife will probably appeal to fans of psychological thrillers along the lines of S.J. Watson's 2011 hit Before I Go To Sleep: I felt there was a significant similarity between the two books, although Good Wife is more elegantly written and subtle. I'm actually quite surprised that I haven't heard more people talking about this book - I wonder if the momentum will pick up when it's published in paperback. It's chilling and has a very intriguing premise, but it's short and light enough to be an easy read, and could be finished in one sitting (indeed, you'll probably want to in order to escape the suffocating atmosphere of Marta's limited world). I've found it difficult to figure out whether my overall response to it is one of frustration or admiration. Not a favourite, but I was impressed by its restraint, and I can imagine it becoming a big seller.

Rating: 6/10 | My full review on Goodreads | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

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