Written by ASA Harrison – Publishers and readers alike have been searching for the ‘new’ Gone Girl, following the critical and commercial success of Gillian Flynn’s crime crossover hit about a warring couple who become headline news when she disappears. Official end-of-year sales UK figures show that Gone Girl sold more than 600,000 paperbacks alone in 2013 – only Alex Ferguson and Dan Brown shifted more books.
While several recent novels have been touted as a must-read for Flynn fans, The Silent Wife is the first that excited me as much as Gone Girl. A sleeper hit in the summer, The Silent Wife is now a bestseller. There’s also a tragic grace note to this debut novel’s success as its Canadian author, Susan Harrison, died aged 65 in April 2013, just ahead of the book’s publication. Like Stieg Larsson, Harrison’s premature death came as she was on the cusp of literary stardom.
The Silent Wife is such a perfect debut, you have to hope that Harrison had some inkling it would be a hit. Her first and – sadly – only novel is a ruminative, sometimes chilly psychological thriller about a doomed relationship with just a few flashes of violence. While it lacks the playful, audacious plotting that made Gone Girl such an addiction, it may ultimately be a richer reading experience.
What the two novels do share is a flip-flopping narrative style between each member of a couple whose relationship is falling apart. Jodi, a childless, 45-year-old part-time psychiatrist has been with buccaneering Chicago property magnate Todd for 20 years. She’s overlooked his affairs and believes their bond is unbreakable, but for the first time she has a serious rival. It seems fitting that Jodi and Todd first met when their cars crashed, as his risk-taking personality and sustained dishonesty were always going to result in a relationship wreckage – even if it took two decades.
The book begins in fatalistic fashion with the revelation that Jodi, whose life is one of agreeable routines and middle-class comfort, will be transformed into a killer in just a few months. On the surface, Todd might appear to deserve such treatment: he’s a serial cheat who also has no qualms about visiting prostitutes, and now he’s hooked up with the student daughter of his best friend. Yet it soon becomes clear that Todd, a depressive alcoholic who’s going the same way as his father, has little or no control over his own life. His young girlfriend is soon dragging him away from Jodi, even though he has no wish to leave her and his perfect home.
What makes The Silent Wife such a grimly compelling read is Harrison’s delving into the psychology of each character. We learn that Jodi’s father was a pharmacist who cheated on his wife with the customers, which made her decide never to have a family. She also has an awkward relationship with her brothers. Todd’s father was a drunken sadist who dwelled in the basement with a bottle, only emerging to traumatise his family. Todd recalls witnessing his father break his mother’s arm at the dinner table just for the hell of it.
These painful experiences may actually have made Todd and Jodi cling together for 20 years, but when the break-up finally happens they are each ambushed by childhood memories that eclipse even the pain of a disintegrating relationship.
The Silent Wife is a convincing psychological thriller that’s elevated by Harrison’s limpid prose and exploratory narrative, so it feels like a bonus when she also introduces a procedural element with a cunning piece of coincidence. Guessing what’s going to happen next in this novel is a bit like working out what another person is really thinking: impossible. It’s a rare feat and should ensure that The Silent Wife endures beyond its current bestseller status.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars