It is to Emily Perkins' complete credit that I read half of Novel About My Wife pre-Oxford and picking it up about ten days later, was right back in and finished it. I can't say that about every book which has the misfortune to become a dissected read but this one survived admirably.
Emily Perkins, I discover, is a young New Zealand writer with several prize nominations to her name already and, for this novel, benefited from a very generous-sounding fellowship providing both accommodation and a stipend.
If Lisa Glass writing on the Picador blog was looking for a less-than perfect heroine with a verucca, then Emily Perkins has created just the one,
'And her feet weren't perfect: they were long and dry, with knobbly toes and a verucca on one heel which never went away because she refused to do anything but laugh about it.'
This is our page one significantly past-tense introduction to Ann the sculptor, married to Tom the screenwriter, living in the their first house, a semi-derelict affair in the East End of London and expecting first baby.Convinced that she is being followed by a local homeless man, Ann slowly disintegrates as Tom retrospectively peels back the layers of their life together as this novel, billed as a psychological thriller, slowly unfolds.
'If I could build her again using words, I would: starting at her long,painted feet and working up, shading in every cell and gap and space for breath until her pulse couldn't help but kick back into life.'
The book's opening line haunted me mercilessly for the next two hundred pages as I wondered and anguished and fretted about where this book was going and about what will happen to Ann. It seemed to take as long as the pregnancy and, being well-prepared for the fact it will be tragic, I was therefore watching in on Tom and Ann's life together in that strange symptom-clue-spotting way as the chain of events unfolded.
A device I enjoy; a writer as a character in a book writing a book within that book to help fill in past events and if the trick is as accomplished as it is here then it works to great effect. Tom's document curiously titled N.A.M.W. and an effort to try and distance himself from events in order to recount them in the third person but within the framework of his first-person narrative which makes up most of the novel.
Heavens I've made that sound hopelessly confusing but it all works and plunges you into a welcomingly different perspective every so often. A gentle drip drip of clues helped me fill in the full story and there are thankfully some wry funny moments too which all help to balance what you know must come.
Going to a party at the rather sinister Kate and Simon's Hampstead home in those ante-natal days, Tom reflects on the guests who had
'the feverish look of parents who hadn't been out of the house for months. The cumulative babysitting fees from the kitchen alone probably ran to a thousand pounds.'
Then a telling comment which segues effortlessly into another book I'm currently reading,
'The first pregnancy is a long sea journey to a country where you don't know the language, where land is in sight for such a long time that after a while it's just the horizon - and then one day birds wheel over that dark shape and it's suddenly close and all you can do is hope like hell that you've had the right shots.'
More about that book tomorrow but meanwhile it's worth adding Novel About My Wife by Emily Perkins to your psycho-suspense reading list, it's not quite a thriller to my mind but a good read all the same.