REVIEW: HOW TO BE A GOOD WIFE BY EMMA CHAPMAN

HOW TO BE A GOOD WIFE
Author: Emma Chapman
Picador RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

How To Be a Good WifeEvery now and then, along comes a book that takes you out of your comfort zone, but wills you to keep reading. That’s what How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman was for me – a book full of tension and questions that swept me up and into the story, depositing me at the end with more questions and a lingering uncertainty. “What just happened there?”, I asked at the end, feeling like I’d been scooped up by a dumper of a wave and dumped hurly-burly on the sand (and wanting to go back for more).

“Her wedding present to me had been a book, How To Be a Good Wife, which she said would teach me everything I needed to know … I learnt every page by heart.” 

Marta has always tried to be a good wife to Hector. He is 20 years her senior and he has always taken care of her – in fact, Marta can hardly remember her life before him. Their life together is one of routine: Marta is a housewife who goes to the market every day at 1pm; Hector is a teacher who comes home at the same time each day. That’s the way Hector likes it, the way it’s always been even during the years they raised their son, Kylan.

Marta, ever conscious of the good wife’s duty to surround her child with stability, order and routine, has always taken medication at Hector’s behest to suppress her emotions and keep her level. She stopped taking them once, when Kylan was growing up and becoming more distant from her, but Hector found out and made her start taking the tablets again. Now, she has stopped taking them again – allowing her to feel something. If something bad happens, she imagines that Kylan will come back and take care of her. Not only that – it’s something she feels she can control, unlike anything else in her Hector-dominated world: “I like the warm strong, feeling I get from fooling Hector. It is better than feeling nothing at all.”

So when Hector comes home one day early, she is unsettled: ” … I picture him: pacing in his study, messing up the kitchen. He has tipped the delicate balance that is holding us together”. I love the image this paragraph creates; I can feel her discomfort radiating from the page, prickling at my skin. As Marta looks at Hector later, she feels sick. His name no longer conjures up feelings of protection, but is a discordant sound, strange in her throat. Now, when she recalls the story of their first meeting, it feels wrong, like a song out of tune. The superficial, medicine-enhanced peace has worn off, leaving uneasy questions and a crushing claustrophobia emerging in its place.

Marta begins to see things – a young girl, blonde and thin, desperate, trapped, and startlingly familiar. Marta senses that the girl is trying to tell her something and soon comes to believe that the girl is a flashback, a long-buried memory from her past. She becomes convinced that something happened to her, something that Hector knows about, and begins to doubt everything about her life and that Hector has ever told her. At the same time, she doubts herself. Is the girl a hallucination? Is she a symptom of the illness that Hector tells her she has? Or is Marta, medication free, remembering who she really is? And if she is, will anyone believe her?

How to Be a Good Wife is a breath-taking, atmospheric read that caught me by surprise with its depth and haunting aftertaste. It’s like a short, sharp punch to the stomach. The psychological tension is sharp, almost painful, as you get caught up in Marta’s anxieties and doubts; in a way, I felt trapped within Marta’s mind as she hurtled towards the unexpected conclusion – I got to a point where I just couldn’t stop reading. Like Marta, I didn’t know who to trust. Was it all in her mind? Or was Hector the bad guy? Would her son believe her, or his father? My mind was whirling with possibilities. What great writing to evoke that kind of reaction.

Was it enjoyable? Do we really enjoy being in a state of tension for a prolonged period of time? Not really. Enjoyable is not the right word for this book, which is on the darker side, if not scary. I appreciated this book for what it was – a remarkably clever and polished book. It’s hard to believe it’s Chapman’s first book. She has explored some interesting themes, ranging from a woman’s experience of mental illness, to the essence of being a woman itself; both themes are treated with insight and sensitivity. I’ll be reading it again, because I’m guessing second-time around I’ll get even more from it.

Available from good bookstores and Pan Macmillan. This copy was courtesy of Pan Macmillan.

Bookish treat: Scones – they’re in every good wife’s repertoire … aren’t they?