A Single Breath (27 March 2014) by Lucy Clarke
In January this year, The Guardian published an article by the author Lucie Whitehouse titled 'The rise of the marriage thriller'. The piece pinpointed an emergent literary trend - also given the label 'chick noir' - and discussed a recent crop of female-oriented psychological/crime thrillers with domestic settings, often focusing on the secrets that can lurk within a marriage. The most obvious inspiration for this movement, such as it is, has been Gillian Flynn's mega-hit Gone Girl, the archetypal 'marriage thriller', in which a psychopathic wife and a loathsome husband are entertainingly awful to one another.
Although the phrase was coined by a female author, and one whose work I've enjoyed, personally I dislike this term. I don’t think it’s necessarily offensive in itself, but I can see how easily it could be used as another way for fiction written by, and largely for, women to be dismissed and made to seem less valid. Why do we have to fit women's fiction (itself a dismissive term) into boxes like this - something that rarely happens with male writers? Whitehouse has previously written spellbinding literary thrillers, while her most recent, Before We Met, was a good but comparatively lacklustre yarn which appeared to be clearly influenced by the Gone Girl trend.
Part of what concerned me about the book was that it felt like it had been written to fit a template, and I wonder how many young, talented female authors there are who feel under pressure to force their work to conform to such a sub-genre.
At the same time I understand the need to pin down a trend and give it a name. The last few years have seen an explosion in the number of such novels, and I've often commented myself on the need for a definitive way to group them. This is sometimes because I want to compare them to one another and examine the ways in which one massive hit - yes, Gone Girl again - may have influenced hundreds of other works; it’s sometimes because I want to criticise them, since certain books within this bracket are incredibly lazy and poorly put together, and have clearly been rushed to publication just to capitalise on a trend.
The above is relevant because now the term exists, A Single Breath is likely to be categorised as a 'marriage thriller', whether it's supposed to be one or not. The initial premise is actually fairly similar to that of Before We Met: in both books, a young wife, married for a short time after a whirlwind romance, starts to uncover apparent lies told by her husband, after which her suspicions spiral into a series of awful discoveries. The major difference is that in A Single Breath, protagonist Eva's husband, Jackson, is killed in an accident at the start of the book, and her discoveries occur after his death. Unable to see through her despair, she makes an impulsive decision to travel to Tasmania, where Jackson was born and brought up, where she soon begins to realise that what her husband had told her about his life was somewhat removed from reality.
As with Clarke's debut The Sea Sisters, one of the major strengths of A Single Breath is its incredibly strong sense of place. The story is primarily set in Tasmania, a place I know little about, yet I found that within pages of Eva's arrival there I could envision it perfectly. Unlike Sea Sisters it's not a travelogue, but the description is so vivid that it doesn't suffer from being largely confined to one setting. In fact, if anything, it's better for it. Eva is an instantly likeable character and it's easy to sympathise with her through grief, uncertainty about Jackson's past, and the beginnings of a new romance.
While I wouldn't place A Single Breath under the heading of literary fiction, I'm also reluctant to categorise it as anything more flimsy, because I really, really liked it and I don't want to put anyone off reading it if 'chick noir' or whatever is something they'd usually turn their nose up at. Okay, yes, it's not going to replace the classics on anyone's shelves, but the important thing about it isn't that it revolves around a relationship: it's that Clarke creates a setting so real you can almost touch it, a protagonist you can root for, and a compelling plot. Come the summer, this will be the perfect book to take on holiday.
I'm sure we won't have seen the last of the 'marriage thriller' for a long while yet, but I hope the trend continues to yield books like this one - that fit within the category, but don't feel as though they are limited by it - than those that seem deliberately calculated to attain coveted 'next Gone Girl' status.
I received an advance review copy of A Single Breath from the publisher through NetGalley.
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