Friday 26 June 2009

Woman inside man describes woman

Novel about my wife, by Emily Perkins (Bloomsbury)

Tom Stone is a struggling screenwriter; his wife Ann is a sculptor making moulds of cancerous bodies in the radiology department of St Bartholomew’s Hospital. They have bought a house they cannot afford and are expecting a baby which is going to bankrupt them, but both feel confident that somehow their love will keep them afloat.

As her pregnancy continues however, Ann becomes persuaded that she is being stalked by a homeless man and cannot shake the feelings of paranoia and anxiety that this situation creates. Tom, unable to reassure his wife and increasingly concerned about their finances, decides to go behind her back and address the situation on his own.

Novel About My Wife combines thriller with romance, but without any of the disparagement often implied by those terms. It is at heart a love story; one that carries the reader along with it, describing with precision and honesty both the joys and sorrows of love. The novel is gripping partly due to the mysterious stalker plot, but mainly because every misguided or selfish action of Tom’s – of which there are many – threatens to disrupt the careful balance of the couple’s relationship and the reader wants more than anything for it to succeed.

The novel’s setting is the world of the ‘middle-class poor’, as Emily Perkins described it in a recent chaired discussion. Tom and Ann live in Hackney, East London, and Novel About My Wife exactly captures the character of the on-the-up but still dingy neighbourhood and its residents. A visit to Hampstead, a more affluent area of London, has Tom fuming, jealous of those who live there but at the same time scornful of their pretensions and possessions. Perkins mixes a great deal of humour into her novel; Tom’s self-denigrating wit and acerbic attitude to pretentiousness in those around him relieves some of the tension created by the sense of impending disaster that saturates the story.

Where the novel really shines is in the authenticity of its narrative voice. Perkins inhabits the male mindset utterly convincingly, drawing her male narrator with total commitment; there is not the slightest tremor in Tom’s characterisation, not a moment when the reader might be aware that they are reading a woman writing as a man. The tone is Nick Hornby-esque in places, particularly in those moments when Tom is in a context outside the domestic. Here he describes his friend Andy:

‘He’s tall, with the unruly red cowlicks of a Norman Rockwell child, and massive hands and feet. If he were a woman he would have to be one of the incredibly posh and ugly sort. I, on the other hand, am bony and femme to start with, and it wouldn’t take much to turn me into a purring minx straight out of Anaïs Nin. Sorry, not sure how I ended up here’ (p. 41).

This already impressive feat of characterisation is made more remarkable when we consider the novel within the novel, the extracts of the book that Tom is writing about Ann. These passages are in the third person but effectively narrate the world from Ann’s point of view, the setting a recent holiday the couple took to Fiji. Gone is the arrogance and ego of the male narrator, replaced with an undeniably more female approach. Given that we see Ann through Tom’s eyes for the majority of the novel, these glimpses are crucial to our understanding of her character. The extracts are few enough and brief enough that we cannot quite forget that they are in fact just another presentation of Ann by Tom, but this does not take away from the effectiveness with which Perkins makes her female protagonist come alive. In fact, they add another dimension to the novel: the complex issue of how fictional representation aids memory, reshapes the past and influences the pain of loss.

Novel About My Wife is a book about obsessive love but Perkins broadens its scope with references to a host of wider ranging subjects, such as the dislocation of the immigrant experience, the disturbing consequences of diseases of the mind and the challenges of creative inspiration. The domestic sphere has never been so enthralling.



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