Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 8, 2010

Novel about My Wife, by Emily Perkins

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
ISBN: 9781596911666
Source: Personal Library


Responses

  1. Actually this doesn’t sound too bad. Of course, I don’t have the disappointment about NZ. But I try to avoid the death & disease aspect of books. What’s a cancer mask?

  2. It’s when somone has to have surgery on the face and they want a model of how it looked beforehand. If for example, someone had skin cancer removed from the nose, the plastic surgeons would use the mask to see what the nose had looked like so that they could restore it to look the same.

  3. I was wondering if the masks were to “hide” the damage, so thanks for clearing that up. It reminds me of those death masks that used to be made of famous people (or infamous).

  4. I think their significance is that Ann is a creative, artistic type, and that she has to earn a living for the family in this rather depressing role while her husband swans about London as a would-be screenwriter. It never occurs to him to go and get some sort of less satisfying job so that the bills can be paid, not even when she’s pregnant and they are desperately short of money.

  5. I just finished this book in 3 days. I loved it and couldn’t put it down. I don’t think you’re giving it due credit, Lisa. It isn’t touted as a great New Zealand novel, too bad the award threw you off. You even got some of the characters wrong, it is Simon and Kate that have the trendily named kids, Tonia is the best friend.

    So many people think the way that Tom does, yet are loathe to admit it. And he is continually pointing out his own shortcomings, in a funny and honest way.

    I didn’t find anything over the top about his descriptions of falling in love with his son. Do you have kids? This was a pretty fair depiction of the emotions that one goes through.

    I loved Tom’s love of Ann, his view on friends and strangers, and the interactions we are all doomed to partake in at one time or another.

    I think Emily Perkins did a bang up job. But maybe I’m a little more of a closet judge with a smartass pessimistic side than I thought I was!

    I give this book 2 thumbs up, and a wink and a nod as well.

    • Oops, sorry about the character mix-up! Thanks for setting me straight Gayle:)

  6. Sorry I typo’d my email address on the first comment, don’t know if you need it.

  7. Also, the memories about the Fiji wedding night all tie into the memories of her youth that she has suppressed, and the connection to Hallie, and are the basis for her nut job suicidal death. The memories of the wedding night, the ‘hooded man’, these are meant to draw the reader along to the realization that she had suppressed some trauma.

    I think. lol.

    • Yes, Gayle, I ‘got’ that about the suppression of trauma bit, but I think (though am not at all sure) that what Perkins is also trying to show us with her unreliable narrator, is that he who claims to be so passionately in love with her doesn’t know her well enough to know that something is badly wrong. I’m not suggesting that he should have known exactly what was wrong, but that where there’s a close and loving relationship the partner should be aware of something as important as this.
      There is another possibility (I think). Tom is writing the Fiji narrative to help himself deal with the grief, but we don’t really know what he’s basing his facts on. What if he (consciously or unconsciously) invented the traumatic event so that he’s got something/someone to blame instead of himself?

  8. Ah, but what then of the trash talk that Hallie was slinging around about Ann? It involved Kate and Simon, thus not only in Tom’s narrative…

    What do you make of the ending? I think it shows that even though he thought he was ready to move on, his lingering love of Ann could still blind side him. Curious to hear another take on it.

    Also, I really disagree with your assessment of Tom as unreliable. And here is where I make somebody angry: he’s a MAN!!! They like to think, “Oh, everything’s ok? Excellent! Let’s have some lovin’ then.” I apologize to any I may offend, and I may be way off, but the men I’ve had anything to do with all live along these lines! I think Perkins has captured his maleness accurately.

    I have just lent out the book to a very sarcastic buddy, eager to hear what she thinks of it. I was seriously impressed. I’m just sayin’. Again. ;)

  9. Ah Gayle, I mean Tom is an ‘unreliable narrator’ in the sense that we can’t believe everything he tells us…difficult to be specific without using spoilers which I really don’t want to do here, but in general the problem is (as Emily Perkins has designed this book) that we do not know what’s inside Ann’s head, only what Tom tells us what’s inside her head. So (as you say) when he says everything was ok, maybe in the beginning of the book we believed him, but as the story progressed it seems doubtful. Women, we think to ourselves, are not likely to think/react/whatever like that. I don’t, for example, believe that a sassy smart working woman like Ann would be comfortable with doing all the cooking at the end of her working day and not have a row about it every now and again. But Tom implies that this Ann of his, on the posthumous pedestal he has created, was so supportive of him and his creative needs that she was happy about it.
    It made for interesting discussion in our book group which is one of the reasons I think it was a good choice to win the prize. I would like to think that it’s been a popular win for that reason – though I’d still like to come across some good NZ fiction that’s about or set in NZ! It’s so hard for us here in Australia to know about their fiction because the only books that get any publicity here are their award winners.

  10. Lisa I was thinking of reading this soon to support NZ book month so am really interested to read your review and to note the non NZ setting. I’m in the mood for more of a kiwi focus so think I will save this one for another time 0:)

    • HI Tracey, if you’re holding off on this one, I would recommend either Potiki, Hokitika Town, or Wulf – all three are excellent books (reviewed here on this blog, click the New Zealand category under country of origin) and distinctively Kiwi too.

      • Hi Lisa – thanks so much. I have heard of Potiki but not the others so will check out for sure. Appreciate your recommendations and just the title of Hokitika Town sounds interesting..


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