The Other Wife is a most unusual book: I am not quite sure what to make of it. On the one hand it’s an absorbing portrait of a destructive relationship between a brave but very odd woman suffering from both physical and mental illness, and her ex-husband who seems unable to withdraw from a very strange marriage, even after their divorce. But the narrative voice is a puzzle. The story is told by a friend of the husband who was both an occasional observer of this relationship and also the recipient of the husband’s confessional papers. This friend admits himself that his motivations aren’t clear, and that his capacity to analyse the situation isn’t clear either. He’s also got an extremely irritating pompous way of expressing himself and he repeats his points over and over, as if to hammer things home. So the book is long, 374 pages in hardback, and it takes a while to read because the writing style is somewhat quaint and formal – and occasionally obscure.
As the perfect hostess, Miriam spread her attention evenly among the guests, but she was particularly keen to “meet new faces” as she liked to call her effusive ritual. She warmly welcomed Ted and Linda, albeit with a barely noticeable raised eyebrow. They were an attractive pair, but it took Miriam no time to deduce that the handsome man in his prime and his engaging young partner had to be a makeshift couple. She had forgotten the name of Linda’s boyfriend, but remembered his winsome youthful, almost boyish appearance. Of course she would not have referred to him but his absence merely drew her attention to Linda’s more mature good-looking escort. Had the young girl already abandoned youthful discoveries of love and started an affair with an older, no doubt well-to-do professional? These days young women didn’t seem to waste their time. Unperturbed by her thoughts, Miriam exchanged the usual pleasantries – “So lovely to see you again” – cheerfully accepted Ted’s flowers with the question, “May I pass them on to our birthday girl?” and wished the pair an enjoyable evening. Before joining the boisterous crowd Ted and Linda moved on to congratulate Angela on her day of honour.
Then they went their separate ways. Ted soon lost sight of his companion until late at night when Linda approached him at the bar with a young man in tow. She thanked her chaperone for his company, kissed him on both cheeks and informed him that she and her newfound friend were about to leave – “Be good, Ted!” she pleaded exuberantly as she sipped from his bourbon, took the young man’s hand and led him away. Suppressing his intended comment to Linda – “Defend your habeas corpus!” – Ted just waved at them instead. He couldn’t help smiling. No doubt, Linda had enjoyed the party and Ted too felt young and energetic, even if he was no longer tempted to seduce attractive young women. Instead, he fought against the noise of the party with too many whiskeys. (p. 266)
One of the advantages of blogs as a platform for reviews is that there’s space to quote at length so that the reader gets a taste of the author’s style. Defend your habeas corpus?? I know what habeas corpus means in law, but I have no idea what Ted meant by this use of it, and I don’t see how Burt, the narrator could possibly have known what Ted was suppressing anyway. Readers will decide for themselves whether these aspects of the novel are flaws or intentional devices to provoke distrust in the narrator.
However, the novel is remarkable in its portrayal of an extreme situation. Ted is a randy young law student when he meets Yvonne, who is socially inept but very smart. (She’s a biochemist doing very specialised research, into her own autoimmune disease). He becomes intrigued, and ends up in a marriage which is never consummated. Over time her obsessions manifest themselves, and in Zurich where he has commitments to fulfil for his fellowship, she becomes extremely possessive and suspects him of having an affair when he’s actually doing research. After the divorce, which takes longer to take place than you would imagine, she stalks him, sabotaging his first attempt at a new relationship and becoming the ‘other wife’ in a weird threesome when he eventually marries Miriam.
But as Burt points out, (at greater length than he needs to) Ted has entrapped himself and Miriam’s tolerance for his voluntary continued (a-sexual) relationship with Yvonne over many years is unusual to the point of sainthood. All the main characters are a bit odd…
At the back of the book there’s an afterword from the author about the narrative voice. I haven’t read it: while I don’t mind a critical introduction to a classic text, I don’t want to be told how to interpret a book by its own author, any more than I like those annoying ‘book group questions’ that lurk at the back of some recent releases.
There’s a fascinating interview with Manfred Jurgensen at Radio National.
Author: Manfred Jurgensen
Title: The Other Wife
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2015
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers