Paperback review: ‘that strange echoing fear’ How to be a Good Wife – Emma Chapman

The distant mountains rise higher and darker, surrounding us: shadowed blue-green masses capped with white snow.

On the surface Emma Chapman’s debut novel is a cool, controlled, and compact account of the apparent psychosis of Marta Bjornstad in a nameless Scandinavian town as her husband and son look on in increasing despair. Yet beneath this is a deeply intelligent consideration of the destabilising effects on identity and the experience of time caused by the absence of a framework of memory.  Marta’s narration relates a scraped out experience related by Chapman’s chillingly direct and economical language which always points beyond itself and the starved atmosphere of her character’s mind. An unstocked mind in which things reverberate: sounds, images, memories, desires. These oscillations colour everything. Shapes rise and fall in the wan twilight of a Scandinavian Autumn, the rays of the Sun playing on the surface and, although attenuated, penetrating the depths. From those depths rise visions or memories of a blonde girl in dirty pyjamas, a forgotten grace of movement, a prison. Each one confuses or casts doubt on the life Marta has led, cleaning, cooking, and caring for her husband Hector and son Kylan. The accepted narrative of their meeting and marriage is that Hector saved Marta from drowning and nursed her back to health after her parents died. And yet, as she once again stops taking her medication, the sunlit uplands of an apparently blissful marriage begin to fracture.

 Now it’s as if I can see shadows for the first time.

Marta’s experience of time is episodic because she lacks the kind of structure required to secure its continuity. Hence, her narration and experience is insistently present tense, which is why knowing the time is so important to her: it’s the only structure she has. The only structure, that is, apart from the book given to her on her wedding day by Hector’s overbearing mother – How to be a Good Wife – which contains such commands as ‘Never hurry or nag him along. His time is precious, and must be treated as such’; ‘Always wait for him before you begin eating: he should always come first’; and ‘Never question his authority, for he always does what is best for the family, and has your interests at heart.’ This guide and framework simultaneously secures Marta in a stale home and erodes any sense of agency and selfhood she might have possessed or developed. The question the reader must ask is whether it is in reaction to this diminished selfhood that Marta’s developing assertiveness arises.

The passivity of Marta’s narration is broken by insistent voices which, whether excerpts from a domestic guidebook, fragments of memory, unattributed threats and entreaties, or external attempts to constrain through dismissal and psychiatric diagnosis, serve to reinforce and then undermine her fragile structure as the of tone each develops throughout the novel. ‘If you do what I say, there’s no reason for anyone to get hurt.

And there it is again, that strange echoing fear, slipping through the cracks that have formed in the memory. It’s easy to look at a photograph, and to tell yourself things happened in a certain way, that you were happy. Easy to talk about until it seems that it really happened that way. But as I looked out through that gauzy veil, the petals of my bouquet quivering in my hands, as  I made those steps towards Hector standing at the altar without my father’s arm to support me, I remember being frightened, not excited.

This passage might stand for the whole novel in apparent simplicity and uneasy allusion: that gauzy veil a symbol of Marta’s desaturated experience, a filter on her perception, her understanding and memory. Her marriage has framed and constrained her entire being, completely externalising her identity such that it is dangerously dependent on feminine roles: wife, mother, housekeeper, cook. Are her insidious doubts a reaction to this constrained and hollow existence?  Marta tries to lift her veil, which immediately speaks to Shelley’s sonnet and to the collapsing marriage of Maugham’s novel.

Lift not the painted veil which those who live

Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,

And it but mimic all we would believe

With colours idly spread,—behind, lurk Fear

And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave

Their shadows, o’er the chasm, sightless and drear.

What lurks behind the veil, the story of her marriage, and that phantom girl, whose image seems to efface Marta’s each time she washes or gazes into the mirror? Reflecting surfaces herald the loss of one self and the glimpsing of another. Mirrors lack depth and yet mimic it. Waters can be deep and yet hide their extent. Marta’s certainties drain away with the bath water. Where is her father? Why was she so afraid on her wedding day? Perhaps most compelling: Is this veil her medication, forced upon her by Hector? Or is she actually ill? Or both? Of course, that very suspicion of Hector’s story should alert the reader to doubt Marta’s voice as keenly as she does her husband’s. Fear and hope begin to bleed into one another as her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.

What if I wasn’t myself before?

Chapman probes how we treat individuals diagnosed with mental illness. There is an implicit challenge here to the view that a mental disorder should entail a corrosive departure from oneself; a challenge to the narrative of unreliability and the distrust of memories of potentially significant trauma. In many ways I prefer this book to Sebastian Faulk’s Engleby which shifts the ground very sharply beneath the reader’s feet toward the end. In its apparent simplicity How to be a Good Wife contains multitudes. It is not devastating and its development was far from a surprise, but I don’t think that is the point of this book at all. Chapman has done something far more interesting than just write a competent thriller: the landscape of the novel and Marta’s mind is submerged, but an emergence from those depths, an ascent to the mountain peaks that shelter the fjord, is not straightforwardly liberating, as the ambiguous relationship with water throughout attests. Her compact and allusive resistance to reduction and the complex archaeology of memory and despair make Emma Chapman’s debut novel very impressive indeed.

For some time, I have watched a magpie, working at the frozen earth.

 

How to be a Good Wife is published in paperback on 24th April by Picador.

My thanks to Picador for this review copy.

Advertisements

‘suspended dust’ Plainsong – Kent Haruf

plainsong-978033039314006

Plainsong—the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian Church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air

Kent Haruf’s simple and unadorned epigraph announces the kind of book that one is about to read. Plainsong – vocal music that expresses and explores desolation, joy, creation, and death as a form of celebration, memorial, and call to prayer and contemplation. It is no accident this novel is a song that points to both the internal and the external, to the immediate and the transcendent, in the manner of the Colorado plains stretching into the distance.

Here was this man Tom Guthrie in Holt standing at the back window in the kitchen of his house smoking cigarettes and looking out over the back lot where the sun was coming up.

Haruf’s apparently simple set of interlocking stories of the residents of Holt, Colorado set up resonances and symmetries that manage to comprehend the whole of life. Harmonies creep in whilst Haruf maintains the same prose voice. Two young brothers, Ike and Bobby Guthrie, lose a mother to depression and marital breakdown; two old farmers Harold and Raymond McPheron gain a daughter of sorts; young and pregnant, Victoria Roubideaux loses a mother but gains something else. Birth and death – human and animal – echo another across the pages. Life continues. There are few fireworks. Haruf’s writing is so restrained and so precise in its characterisation of the town and the plains that they become luminous.

Outside the house the wind came up suddenly out of  the west and the tail vane turned with it and the blades of the windmill whir, then the wind died down and the blades slowed and stopped.

Haruf’s transparent prose manages to remain completely immediate. It approaches a kind of inverted sublime in the sense of space he achieves in so domestic a story. Haruf eschews commas and the decorative wherever possible. Nor are there any speech marks. The effect is to remove a filter of subjectivity, to reduce the mind-dependence of his narration to a minimum such that the characters, their thoughts, and environment provide the framework and substance of the novel. When the prose does become more exuberant that tone is an implicit or explicit aspect of the character’s experience rather than the narrator’s.

 They stood in the corral and looked past the cattle and examined the sky.

I reckon it’s decided to hold off, Raymond said. It don’t appear like it wants to snow anymore.

It’s too cold to snow, Harold said. To dry, too.

It might snow tonight, Raymond said. I’ve seen it happen.

It’s not going to snow, Harold said. Look at the sky over there.

That’s what I’m looking at, Raymond said.

The McPherons are a heart-warming creation: irascible, inseparable, isolated, and farm-hardened; yet honest, kind, and unsophisticated in their good intentions. Harold and Raymond are both roughly experienced and yet innocent. They require initiation into certain mysteries and ways of being even as old men. Likewise, Ike and Bobby Guthrie are thrown into the harshness and injustice of life as they encounter sex, death, and persecution between paper-rounds.

                 I guess he’s going to die, Bobby said.

Who is?

Your horse. I guess he’s going to die today.

No he isn’t. Eat your breakfast.

I already ate my breakfast.

Well eat some more.

As I read Plainsong I was occasionally reminded of the unflinching realism of Evan Connell’s Mrs Bridge which is in many ways a very different novel. However, whilst Connell’s writing is intentionally claustrophobic and anguished, Haruf’s realism is capacious, generous, and tender. It is hard not to be reminded of Hemingway, Steinbeck, and, more recently, Kitamura. However, like Connell, their compression is shot through with unease and sweat whereas Haruf’s speaks more to the sentiment expressed in Robert Walser’s A Little Ramble: ‘We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.’

Whilst never romantic, there are nonetheless times when the subject matter of Plainsong avoids the sentimental by a mere whisker, but it is the tone of the writing which consistently resists a lapse into the saccharine, and thus becomes all the more true for its simple and honest depiction. The effect is hypnotic and beautiful and deceptively simple: this is a carefully balanced and crystalline novel, its symmetries and spaces apparently effortless. Plainsong was followed by Eventide which follows the same characters. I will read that this week. Haruf’s latest novel Benediction returns to Holt and will be published in the UK by Picador on 11th April.

This ain’t going to be no goddamn Sunday school picnic.

No, it ain’t, Raymond said. But I don’t recall you ever attending Sunday school either.

My thanks to Picador for this review copy.

‘There is always a story’ The Book of My Lives­ – Aleksandar Hemon

the-book-of-my-life-978144721090001

The Book of My Lives­ – Aleksandar Hemon

Aleksandar Hemon in conversation with William Fiennes at the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts.

When Aleksandar Hemon took up an offer to spend a few months as a Writer-In-Residence at the United Nations Headquarters in New York it is unlikely that he expected one of his lasting memories would be the smallness of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s feet; and yet it is entirely characteristic of the man that he should take such a detail and spin it out into a reflection on the supremely important but infinitely frustrating search for a common language and framework for thinking about the world that goes on at the United Nations. It is one of those places where no matter how small each country gets its chance to speak about the world, even if some voices echo more than others.

It is fitting that Hemon should find his way to the UN. He grew up in Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia, now Bosnia-Herzegovina, drinking, smoking, writing, broadcasting on student radio, and, on one notable and vilified occasion, attending a Nazi-themed cocktail party. Hemon wrote and read, walking the streets and ‘Fancying myself a street-savvy columnist’. When war broke out in 1992 the 27-year old Hemon was visiting Chicago under the auspices of the American Cultural Institute. He sought asylum in the city and his family and dog escaped to Canada the following year. In the first piece of The Book of My Lives Hemon writes that ‘Immigration is an ontological crisis because you are forced to negotiate the conditions of your selfhood under perpetually changing existential circumstances.’ One of Hemon’s concerns both in print and in person is the essentially relational nature of identity and selfhood. At the heart of the NCLA discussion was Hemon’s developing awareness of the network of lives he had failed to fully appreciate in Sarajevo, but without which he felt completely adrift in Chicago. This is clear in the book: ‘In Sarajevo, you possessed a personal infrastructure: your kafana, your barber, your butcher,; the streets where people recognised you, the space that identified you; the landmarks of your life…’ Stripped of his kafana, one of the vital tasks of building a new life in the city was finding a network of lives and spaces in which to position himself: ‘I wanted from Chicago what I’d got from Sarajevo: a geography of the soul.’ Finding a group with which to play football became a key concern.

Often, when I got too excited and demanded, shall we say, that other players stay in their position and play for the team, someone would tell me, Relax, it’s just exercise…, whereupon I’d suggest that if they couldn’t play the way the game’s supposed to be played, they should fuck themselves and go and run on a fucking treadmill.

One of those Hemon plays with is Lido, a 75-year old Florentine art restorer who still believes himself to be in peak physical condition. ‘Even the slowest ball was capable of outrunning him, so when the teams were picked he was never counted as a player—we just tolerated his being on the pitch, safe in the assumption that he would have little impact.’ Lido tells a furious story of the failed restoration of the Sistine Chapel and the disastrous removal of its patina. ‘What they didn’t understand, Lido said, was that the patina is the essential part of the fresco, that the world the Almighty created on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was incomplete until the mortar fully absorbed the paint, until the inchoate universe turned a little darker. It wasn’t a sunny day when God created the world, Lido thundered; devoid of the patina it was all worth shit.’

Hemon has spoken of his dislike for the ‘memoir-craze’; of confession and atonement in the public gaze. Memoir, he argues, should be a matter of bearing witness to others: the ‘I’ should be a method of moving outward into the world and the lives of others. Writing occupies this strange position of reciprocity between the internal and external: ‘Writing was another way to organize my interiority so that I could retreat into it and populate it with words.’ Telling stories of oneself and of others and refusing to admit of any distinguishing principle beyond the place of one’s birth is one way of resisting the hateful and hate-filled ethnic cleansers of the former Yugoslavia. Hence the importance of the search for a common language at the UN, despite its crushing slowness; and hence the young Hemon’s reaction against the hermetic literature of Serbian nationalism. Hemon is quick to acknowledge that one can’t truly know another – any more, perhaps, than one can know oneself – but one can and should imaginatively occupy other people, because that is how, in fiction or otherwise, a common network is created.

Whoever created Lido ought to be satisfied: Lido was one of those rare humans who achieved completion. The rest of us had no choice but to roll in the dirt, get weather-beaten, and accumulate a patina, hoping to earn our right to simply, unconditionally be. And when I passed the ball to Lido that day—fully aware that it was going to be miskicked and wasted—I had the pleasant, tingling sensation of being connected with something bigger and better than me, a sensation wholly inaccessible to those who think soccer is about exercise and relaxation.

And like that Hemon grasps the fragments of a life, pulls them together, and, with a twist, makes a connection with a broader humanity. That he has done so in a language he didn’t really speak until he was 27 makes the achievement all the more remarkable and frequently elicits comparisons with Nabokov and Conrad. It is this ability to move toward an epiphanic moment, to observe and capture the stories of those he meets, grew up with, brought into the world, that marks Hemon out as truly remarkable. Lido died, Hemon told us at the NCLA, in Mexico in circumstances which have never quite been explained, after having followed his latest youthful bride to her small hometown. Hemon’s piece stands as a memorial to a remarkable man, capturing his essence in a few quick brushstrokes.

The Book of My Lives is a largely a collection of revised pieces published in The New Yorker, Granta, The Guardian, and Playboy amongst others. Its constitution from such pieces is wholly appropriate, for this collection of glimpses of and reflections on the meaning of family, emigration, integration, conflict, and the two cities he has called home, is the production of a man understanding people and places through the composition of each piece, through story. A straightforward narrative memoir would not do justice to the fragmented nest of lives Hemon has lived and been essentially connected to. Indeed, it probably wouldn’t do justice to any of us.

 On July 15, 2010, my wife, Teri, and I took our younger daughter, Isabel, for her regular medical checkup. She was nine months old and appeared to be in perfect health.

As William Fiennes pointed out in his discussion with Hemon, The Book of My Lives begins with the birth of a daughter and sister, and ends with the death of a daughter and sister. Of the devastating  final essay ‘The Aquarium’, first published in The New Yorker in 2011, little can be said but that, having read it before, I was dreading returning to it. The parents I know found it near impossible to read. Hemon’s honesty and power in expressing the worst nightmare of any parent is extraordinary both in itself and in the capacity he finds to transform this piece of writing into a reflection on his elder daughter Ella’s acquisition of language and the concomitant expansion of her narrative horizon. Ella uses language in order to understand, she uses characters to process emotions and ideas that demand expression. Hemon does the same – he’s just been at it longer. In doing so he is as insightful, lyrical, philosophical, funny, and angry as anyone I have read. The Book of My Lives is simply remarkable. You absolutely have to read it. In the meantime, I’ll make start on his fiction.

 …when asked “What are you?” I am often tempted to answer proudly: “I’m a writer.” Yet I seldom do, because it is not only pretentiously silly but also inaccurate—I feel I am a writer only at the time of writing. So I say I am complicated. I’d also like to add that I am nothing if not an entanglement of unanswerable questions, a cluster of others.

I’d like to say it might be too early to tell.

  The Book of My Lives is published by Picador on 14th March.

 My thanks to Picador for this review copy.

B.S. Johnson at 80

bs-johnson-005

© The B. S. Johnson Society

This behaving as though an audience were watching has become a part of me, is my character, is me

(Albert Angelo)

It is perhaps fitting in some vague and nameless way that I should finally have read B.S. Johnson (1933-1973) in what would have been his 80th year.  Like so many authors Johnson has been hovering in the periphery of my awareness as ‘A Writer I Ought To Read’. Fortunately for me Picador have reissued four novels and a selection of Johnson’s prose and drama to mark the counterfactual octogenarian’s anniversary. It has been something of a revelation.

  • Albert Angelo (1964)
  • Trawl (1966)
  • House Mother Normal (1971)
  • Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973)
  • Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B.S. Johnson Edited by Jonathan Coe, Philip Tew, and Julia Jordan.

LA_BOCA_BS_JOHNSON_BLOG

To which…I want to reply: There is no experiment without uncertainty. (Toby Litt, in his excellent Introduction to Albert Angelo)

In a world where aspiring writers are still warned against ‘author intrusion’ B.S. Johnson comes as something of a shock. I have read Albert Angelo and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry so far – the beginning and the end, if you will. (Although the former was preceded by one novel Travelling People suppressed by Johnson and the latter followed by the posthumous publication of See the Old Lady Decently). What follow are thus my early thoughts on each novel. Both involve Johnson’s voice in a striking way. The vaunted page 163 of Albert Angelo is remarkable if not entirely unexpected if one read Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry first as I did, and so has some idea of where Johnson was heading.

But I really discovered what I should be doing with Alberto Angelo (1964) where I broke through the English disease of the objective correlative to speak truth directly if solipsistically in the novel form, and hear my own small voice. (Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?)

Is Albert Angelo a supply-teacher or an architect? He struggles between the two, refusing to commit to teaching, trying to work on plans of buildings that will never be constructed. Throughout – well, nearly throughout – Johnson plays the architectural relationship between façade and fabric off that of appearance and character in those Albert meets: ‘There is an art which can tell something of the mind’s construction in the face.’ Albert wants to believe this, for ‘form should be honestly expressed’ he thinks during one of the passages where Johnson seeks to represent both the outward appearance of a lesson as well as the teacher’s mental state by having two columns running alongside one another on the page. Johnson uses several different typographical and formal devices to explore the representation of thought, conversation, and narrative – none of which are easy to reproduce here. At one point square holes are cut through the pages to bring a later event into an odd dialogue with the pages into which it intrudes.

bs

Johnson’s passion and anger generates a restless, searching, comic, chaotic, and angry novel: Albert Angelo doesn’t know what it should be. That ‘should’ is a problem. Where does it come from, this ‘should’? A ‘should’ and its associated certainty require an ‘is’; but, Johnson insists, we do not even know what the novel is, what it is for, what it ought to do. The novel and fiction are different, he insists. Truth and honesty are aimed for, even if the novel cannot do them justice. Thus, for all its typographic, formal, and prose variety – or perhaps because of it – Albert Angelo feels like the ragged beginning of something; or perhaps the insistence that something else – the ante-Joycean novel – should have ended long before.

Life does not tell stories. Life is chaotic, fluid, random; it leaves myriads of ends untied, untidily. Writers extract a story from life only by strict, close selection, and this means falsification. Telling stories is really telling lines. (Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?)

(This reminds me of one of my favourite novels of last year: Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child, in which narrative and emotional resolution are fiercely resisted to great effect).

If Johnson began something with Alberto Angelo in 1964, then Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry was a major development. It is as passionate and tormented as ever, but Johnson had reached a level of control which makes for a novel whose discontinuous and challenging nature is somehow more cohesive. Christie Malry feels hard done by; he feels that his account with society, with Them is in Credit. He thus creates his own accounting system: Moral Double-Entry, wherein he seeks to balance perceived Aggravation with Recompense in several Reckonings which appear in the novel as tables. The increasing distance between Christie’s assessment of his aggravations and their recompense leads to an absurd escalation of his Debiting activity.

Headlam paused to provide a paragraph break for resting the reader’s eye in what might otherwise have been a daunting mass of type.

One of the striking elements of the novel is the careful way in which Johnson makes it clear how much greater is the knowledge of the author than his characters. This gentle destabilisation is at its clearest when a character uses a term so incongruous as to jolt the reader. In doing so, Johnson emphasises the artifice of the novel. Elsewhere his intervention is far more pronounced. For example, after Christie is stopped by a policeman with potentially awkward questions, Johnson remarks: ‘I am told one has to put incidents like that in; for the suspense, you know.’ His characters seem to know they are in a novel, his mother dying when she perceives her narrative function to be at an end, several others suggest their function is to provide some much-needed comic relief.

Aspects of both novels are undoubtedly somewhat dated, especially the social commentary; but that is often the case and is mitigated here by the urgency of the conscience behind it, as well as by the enduring concern for the relationship between authority and the individual. Both novels retain their urgency when the narrative conventions and concerns which Johnson so resisted are still widespread. One doesn’t have to agree with him to see the importance of his insistence of contingency and the tendency to disorder. Neither novel ends with anything like a traditional resolution; such an ending would have defeated Johnson’s aims.

‘In any case,’ he said, almost to himself, not looking at me, ‘you shouldn’t be bloody writing novels about it, you should be out there bloody doing something about it.’

So, I’ve seen where Johnson started and where he (almost) ended up. Now I need to see how he got from one to the other. I’m going to read Trawl and House Mother Normal whilst dipping in and out of the Selected Prose and Drama, before moving on to Jonathan Coe’s biography Like a Fiery Elephant, which has been strongly recommended to me by a few people. And speaking of recommendations, the novelist and critic Lee Rourke and Ian Curtin have both recommended that I follow Johnson with Anna Kavan and Ann Quin. Lee advised me to start with Berg by Quin and Ice or Mercury for Kavan. I’m looking forward to both.

My thanks to Picador for these review copies.

‘that strange echoing fear’ How to be a Good Wife – Emma Chapman

The distant mountains rise higher and darker, surrounding us: shadowed blue-green masses capped with white snow.

On the surface Emma Chapman’s debut novel is a cool, controlled, and compact account of the apparent psychosis of Marta Bjornstad in a nameless Scandinavian town as her husband and son look on in increasing despair. Yet beneath this is a deeply intelligent consideration of the destabilising effects on identity and the experience of time caused by the absence of a framework of memory.  Marta’s narration relates a scraped out experience related by Chapman’s chillingly direct and economical language which always points beyond itself and the starved atmosphere of her character’s mind. An unstocked mind in which things reverberate: sounds, images, memories, desires. These oscillations colour everything. Shapes rise and fall in the wan twilight of a Scandinavian Autumn, the rays of the Sun playing on the surface and, although attenuated, penetrating the depths. From those depths rise visions or memories of a blonde girl in dirty pyjamas, a forgotten grace of movement, a prison. Each one confuses or casts doubt on the life Marta has led, cleaning, cooking, and caring for her husband Hector and son Kylan. The accepted narrative of their meeting and marriage is that Hector saved Marta from drowning and nursed her back to health after her parents died. And yet, as she once again stops taking her medication, the sunlit uplands of an apparently blissful marriage begin to fracture.

 Now it’s as if I can see shadows for the first time.

Marta’s experience of time is episodic because she lacks the kind of structure required to secure its continuity. Hence, her narration and experience is insistently present tense, which is why knowing the time is so important to her: it’s the only structure she has. The only structure, that is, apart from the book given to her on her wedding day by Hector’s overbearing mother – How to be a Good Wife – which contains such commands as ‘Never hurry or nag him along. His time is precious, and must be treated as such’; ‘Always wait for him before you begin eating: he should always come first’; and ‘Never question his authority, for he always does what is best for the family, and has your interests at heart.’ This guide and framework simultaneously secures Marta in a stale home and erodes any sense of agency and selfhood she might have possessed or developed. The question the reader must ask is whether it is in reaction to this diminished selfhood that Marta’s developing assertiveness arises.

The passivity of Marta’s narration is broken by insistent voices which, whether excerpts from a domestic guidebook, fragments of memory, unattributed threats and entreaties, or external attempts to constrain through dismissal and psychiatric diagnosis, serve to reinforce and then undermine her fragile structure as the of tone each develops throughout the novel. ‘If you do what I say, there’s no reason for anyone to get hurt.

And there it is again, that strange echoing fear, slipping through the cracks that have formed in the memory. It’s easy to look at a photograph, and to tell yourself things happened in a certain way, that you were happy. Easy to talk about until it seems that it really happened that way. But as I looked out through that gauzy veil, the petals of my bouquet quivering in my hands, as  I made those steps towards Hector standing at the altar without my father’s arm to support me, I remember being frightened, not excited.

This passage might stand for the whole novel in apparent simplicity and uneasy allusion: that gauzy veil a symbol of Marta’s desaturated experience, a filter on her perception, her understanding and memory. Her marriage has framed and constrained her entire being, completely externalising her identity such that it is dangerously dependent on feminine roles: wife, mother, housekeeper, cook. Are her insidious doubts a reaction to this constrained and hollow existence?  Marta tries to lift her veil, which immediately speaks to Shelley’s sonnet and to the collapsing marriage of Maugham’s novel.

Lift not the painted veil which those who live

Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,

And it but mimic all we would believe

With colours idly spread,—behind, lurk Fear

And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave

Their shadows, o’er the chasm, sightless and drear.

What lurks behind the veil, the story of her marriage, and that phantom girl, whose image seems to efface Marta’s each time she washes or gazes into the mirror? Reflecting surfaces herald the loss of one self and the glimpsing of another. Mirrors lack depth and yet mimic it. Waters can be deep and yet hide their extent. Marta’s certainties drain away with the bath water. Where is her father? Why was she so afraid on her wedding day? Perhaps most compelling: Is this veil her medication, forced upon her by Hector? Or is she actually ill? Or both? Of course, that very suspicion of Hector’s story should alert the reader to doubt Marta’s voice as keenly as she does her husband’s. Fear and hope begin to bleed into one another as her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.

What if I wasn’t myself before?

Chapman probes how we treat individuals diagnosed with mental illness. There is an implicit challenge here to the view that a mental disorder should entail a corrosive departure from oneself; a challenge to the narrative of unreliability and the distrust of memories of potentially significant trauma. In many ways I prefer this book to Sebastian Faulk’s Engleby which shifts the ground very sharply beneath the reader’s feet toward the end. In its apparent simplicity How to be a Good Wife contains multitudes. It is not devastating and its development was far from a surprise, but I don’t think that is the point of this book at all. Chapman has done something far more interesting than just write a competent thriller: the landscape of the novel and Marta’s mind is submerged, but an emergence from those depths, an ascent to the mountain peaks that shelter the fjord, is not straightforwardly liberating, as the ambiguous relationship with water throughout attests. Her compact and allusive resistance to reduction and the complex archaeology of memory and despair make Emma Chapman’s debut novel very impressive indeed.

For some time, I have watched a magpie, working at the frozen earth.

 

How to be a Good Wife is out from Picador in January 2013.

My thanks to Picador for this review copy.