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Novel About My WifeReview - Novel About My Wife
A Novel
by Emily Perkins
Bloomsbury USA, 2008
Review by Ralph Harrington, Ph.D.
Mar 21st 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 12)

Ann is Tom's wife; she is dead. Novel About My Wife is Tom's attempt to, as he says at the beginning, 'build her again using words'. Tom is a failing screenwriter, mired in a world of unfulfilled hopes and unpaid bills. By the end of the book the reader has come to like and even admire his robust bitterness and, as the horror of this dark and twisted tale spirals to its shattering conclusion, he reveals that for all his failings he has the strength to recover and rebuild.

This is a novel that is very pure in form. There are no chapters or other external structural interventions; nor does the author break into Tom's narrative to interpret, guide, annotate or suggest. We hear Tom's voice from beginning to end. The story is, as promised at the outset, his recollection of Ann.

When the story begins, Ann is three months pregnant, the couple have moved into a new house in Hackney, where they make their plans and nourish their hopes for the future. But the world gradually turns from sunshine into shadow. Everything in which Ann and Tom invest their efforts and their hopes proves insubstantial, their environment -- physical, social and mental -- begins to close in threateningly around them.

Ann is involved in a (vividly-described) underground train derailment -- a distinctly urban calamity, and one which, like the lives of the couple themselves, is both clearly modern and simultaneously possessed of an atavistic power to draw them back into the impulses of a darker, more primitive past. As Ann steps out of the train to make her way, with the other passengers, to safety, she breathes in, but the air is thick with accumulated dust, 'Decades of it … soft felt-like layers of human hair and skin cells, so thick around her that other people choked on it'. Nothing is pure in this book, and Ann never finds her way back into a world of pure air, pure motivations, pure memories -- and nor does Tom. The city in which the couple live is outwardly conventional, even attractive, with nice houses and tree-lined streets, but existing alongside it is a darker metropolis of fights, threats, assaults, dismal shops and depressing hospitals. These threatening strands come together in two themes: the stranger who seems to be haunting their home, and the current of the supernatural that finds expression in herbal remedies and quack therapies, exorcisms and superstitions.

Perkins marshals a complex, many-layered narrative with deceptive economy and simplicity. Her depictions of her characters are merciless in their clarity and yet humane in their invitations to understand and sympathize as madness, alienation, violence and horror envelop Tom and destroy his wife.

© 2009 Ralph Harrington

Ralph Harrington, Ph.D. is a historian who has researched, lectured and published on medical history and the history of trauma, among other topics. His web site is at http://www.greycat.org


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