Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

"How to be a good wife" by Emma Chapman (Picador, 2013)

As novels go, it's a standard set-up. 1st-person Marta, 20 years younger than her husband Hector, has had mental problems since before they met (her parents died in a car crash). They have a son Kylan who's recently left home. Her interfering mother-in-law gave her a book ("How to be a good wife") for their wedding with old-fashioned advice on how a wife should please her husband. There are frequent quotes from it (still!). Marta is hallucinating, imagining a young girl (who might be her earlier self, or her son's fiancée). She's losing track of time, starting to smoke, and making life difficult at family gatherings. She's already caused her son to lose a previous girl-friend. She's very conscious of grey hair - her mother-in-law's, Hector's and her own.

She last stopped taking her pills a decade or so ago. It wasn't successful then either. She's aware that she's not well. On p.114 she thinks "What was I thinking? I have no idea where the cigarette has come from, and no collection of lighting it. This is different, I think, to the other things I have been seeing. This is dangerous"

Has Hector been having affairs with his students? She recalls seeing him hug one of them, years ago. When Marta confronts him about it he tells her he's been sacked because of a rival teacher's untrue accusations. He's not been working for 2 months. So they both have secrets.

On p.200 she drives away to Kylan. She tells him that "I've stopped taking my pills and I've started remembering things ... Your father made me take them". She thinks she was abducted as a teenager by Hector after a ballet lesson. She thinks her parents didn't die. He kept her under his house, trapped. She used to be called Elise.

At the end she's in a home. She's let out to attend Kylan's wedding. She slips away from the reception to drown herself.

Too formulaic and contrived for my liking. Could a person's past and name really be erased as easily as suggested here? I doubt it. And the contested facts would be easy to check. So the attempt to keep the reader guessing is doomed from the start. If it's supposed to be a fable about how a young wife might lose her name and identity, it's heavy-handed. Marta's actions and visions are conveniently plot-driven. The language and imagery is surprisingly mundane given the license provided by the artificiality.

Other reviews

  • Catherine Taylor (Chapman's own achievement is to have created a plausible tale of trauma, a ruthless examination of the many layers of marriage, and a woman's opaque role within it.)
  • Patrick McGrath (Chapman’s accomplishment is to confine us so closely within poor Marta’s nightmare that no certain reading of her experience is possible. )
  • Diane Leech (This is a book that can be taken on two levels: the escapist read or the more serious look at the ways men continue to oppress women. ... The Martas of the world exist. Their circumstances ensure their ready dismissal. Called hysterical, crazy, or worse, they are prescribed SSRIs, given the psychiatric label du jour and returned to their torturers. It is easy to pick up How to Be a Good Wife, find it an entertainment, then quickly forget it. Perhaps less entertaining is a writer under 40 years old whose recommended reading list is all women -- narrators, authors, or both -- who suffered and died under male oppressors.)

No comments:

Post a Comment