Novel about My Wife won the 2009 New Zealand Montana Award so I was a bit disconcerted when it turned out to be so firmly placed in contemporary London and seemed so authentically British in its style and preoccupations. The wife, Ann, is Australian, and the husband narrating the story is English. There are some scenes in Fiji, and some references to life in Australia – but New Zealand seems to have been off the radar…
Well, a novel is what it is, and perhaps this one had to be set in London because the world of scriptwriting for film and TV is maybe there instead of Wellington or Dunedin, but I was disappointed. One of the many things I like about reading is that one can absorb all kinds of interesting information about people, places and history, and perhaps I was naive but I was looking forward to reading a New Zealand book about New Zealanders in New Zealand. I have been feeling guilty about neglecting New Zealand fiction, but I don’t feel as if I have made amends by reading this one.
Anyway, enough of all that. Novel about My Wife is a very interesting book. It reminded me a bit of Louis Nowra’s Ice in its treatment of a not-quite-reliable narrator posthumously explaining about his wife. Admittedly in Ice she’s not quite dead yet but she may as well be and the grief and irrational thinking about lost opportunities is the same. Novel about My Wife is more gothic, however, and for all its ambiguities, a more straightforward story.
Tom Stone’s wife is dead, and he is telling the story of their life together in Hackney in London. He’s a not-very-successful scriptwriter and she makes masks for cancer patients. They are always short of money, but always have plenty to spend, courtesy of credit cards and loans from his mother even though he doesn’t like her and mocks her for being too conservative.
So, they were a very modern young couple with a baby on the way when Ann started seeing an intruder around the home. The suspense hinges on whether this intruder is real or imagined and I’m not going to spoil it for anyone by commenting on that.
For me, the book was too long for itself. There’s some great characterisation, especially the yuppies Simon and Tonia and their children Titus and Ruby-Lou. The atmosphere is convincing, depicting the hostile world of modern London with its routine muggings and its train derailments feared as another act of terrorism alongside Ann’s terror of the stalker and memories of an incident in Fiji on their wedding night. The dialogue is often laugh-out-loud funny because Tom is so contemptuous of everybody else and yet so unaware of his own failings. He romanticises their relationship and family life (so over-the-top about falling in love with the baby!), eulogising Ann as you’d expect him to, but still! it doesn’t take long before the reader realises that nothing he says can be taken at face value. But I thought the novel too long, and I couldn’t stop myself wandering off to find something else to read as well rather then read it straight through to the end as a gothic suspense-filled novel should be read.
Customer reviews on Good Reads are often peeved by the narrative gaps but I felt that once a reader accepts that a grief-stricken guilt-ridden husband isn’t going to be able to write a fully coherent account of events, the narration had its own logic.
Pickle Me This was mystified by the ending, but his interview with the author reveals that the ambiguity was intentional. There’s another good review at The Believer too and another at The Times Online.
Author: Emily Perkins
Title: Novel about My Wife
Publisher: Bloomsbury 2009
Source: Personal Library