Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Book review: A.S.A. HARRISON - The Silent Wife (2013)

There were these two girls in your class. One smoked, was red-haired and, by the look of it, could have an equally brilliant career in art and/or in pornography. She was cynical, smart, seductively feministic. Needless to say, all the boys in the class wanted to sleep with her. The other had beautiful wavy hair and was generally a good girl. There was a mystery to her, and she came off as an intriguing introvert. Her cynicism (if there was any) was well-balanced and reasonable. She had good grades, and boys rarely talked to her. As it happened, both girls became writers. The first one wrote Gone Girl. The second one wrote The Silent Wife.

Indeed, parallels between the two novels are inevitable. Both deal with dysfunctional families (sleepy monsters, silent grudges and such), both are told from two perspectives (‘boy’ and ‘girl’ in Gone Girl; ‘he’ and ‘her’ in The Silent Wife), and both work extremely well on different levels. The key one, of course, being ‘psychological thriller’.

The thrills are significantly scarcer in Harrison’s case. They are a little more subtle, a little less flashy; this owes a lot to the author’s style, which is all elegance and understatement. There’s very little that happens in the first part of the book (by page 30 you might ask yourself why in God’s name is this not a short story): you get the silent wife going about her life in a quiet, forgiving way. The silent wife knows her husband cheats on her, but she is determined not to let that ruin their family. The silent wife is a psychotherapist and can think herself into anything. They have no kids (yet) and they are, quite inexplicably, still unmarried (hence ‘silent’). And then you get the husband (ironically, something of a silent husband), who narrates his part of the story. And what a despicable bastard he is: his lover is a young girl called Natasha who also happens to be the only daughter of his best friend. The gathering storm breaks into the real thing the moment Natasha says she is several months away from giving birth to their child.

It is not too enjoyable giving the plot of The Silent Wife because it is all a bit of an awful cliché. From the girl’s name to the best friend part to the pregnancy revelation, the whole thing should crash on the floor with a heavy, lethal thud. The fact that it somehow doesn’t (that’s a ‘somehow’) is a testament to the compact, nuanced prose and the part-vexing, part-mesmerising silence of the silent wife. The silence is a winning formula, simply because anything could come out of it – in particular when the past is so troubled and the brain is working overtime.

Whereas in Gone Girl you started with despising Nick and feeling for Amy, taking sides in The Silent Wife is barely an issue: both characters are equally unlikable. Aesthetically, I was more interested in her part, because writing from the male perspective doesn’t always work. When he tells his drinking buddy in a bar something as rotten as ‘that’s the spirit’, it’s a little wince-inducing – not because it is improbable (it isn’t), but because of the way it looks on paper. Still, you warm up to it, as you warm up to the actual novel, which expectedly erupts in a storm that is bound to leave you scratching your head over a number of trivial and not-so-trivial questions on your present decisions and your possible pasts (to borrow a Roger Waters line).

The ending has to be very sad though. The Silent Wife was A.S.A. Harrison’s debut novel; and it was also her last novel: she died of cancer right before the launch of the book. It was a debut novel at 65, which is a remarkable achievement in many ways. Not least because it’s a very fine little book that certainly deserves to be read. And that, as we all know, is all any writer could ever ask for.


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