Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Holiday Gift Guide: Novel About My Wife by Emily Perkins

Emily Perkins isn’t widely known in North America, which is a shame, as Novel About My Wife (Bloomsbury), her fourth book, is amazing. Tom Stone, a foundering screenwriter, is trying to piece together what went wrong with his wife Ann, who we know at the outset is dead. We don’t know the how she died, or why, but as this almost gothic story unfolds, it’s impossible to put down until we learn the truth.

Ann is everything Tom is not: a beautiful, unconventional Australian, a talented sculptress with a past she refuses to discuss. Tom, is English and more conservative than he’d like to admit, less fortunate in his field and besotted by his red-headed wife. Their relationship is intensely, almost violently sexual in ways Tom chooses to overlook. He also overlooks the jagged scar on Ann’s upper arm, a past pregnancy (aborted), and her literally insane response to Australian Film Producer John Halliburton, whom Tom is longing to work with.

The couple extends themselves financially, purchasing a large fixer-upper in the seedy London neighborhood of Hackney. Ann becomes pregnant, reason for joy, but she also beings unravelling, certain she is being stalked and that malevolence lurks in their crumbling new home. Even the birth of son Arlo fails to calm her increasing hysteria, leading to an inexorable ending.

Perkins’ takes a wry view of English life, of the young couple scrabbling madly for real estate, the right cars, the properly-kitted-out strollers, drinks in the right bistros. That these couples must live beyond their means, chased by envy, is a matter of course, and many American readers will nod in grim recognition. But it is Perkins’ chilling rendering of Ann, mercurial, moody, ultimately unknowable, that truly frightens. Ann’s fears overwhelm both Tom and the reader, moving a novel of domestic unrest into the realm of true horror: hitting us, literally, where we live.

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