The Man of the Family

Editors’ Choice: reviews of Jill Alexander Essbaum, Hausfrau, Rebecca Whitney, The Liar’s Chair, and Laura Lippman, After I’m Gone


Rebecca Whitney, writing in the Independent earlier this year, thoughtfully analyses the huge current appeal of domestic noir – our fascination with “the toxic marriage and its fall-out.” Several successful novels have fed this fascination by constructing ‘romance gone wrong’ plots in which a woman marries an intelligent, charismatic, chisel-featured homme fatale who, by the third act, has turned out to be a dangerous psychopath, multiple murderer and/or serial rapist. But what if the chosen partner is simply too dedicated to the role of the traditional husband – a man of business who is ambitious, overbearing, bossy and possessive?

In some of the most interesting recent examples of domestic noir, we follow the stories of women whose fates lie in the hands of such men, their lives distorted by a domineering partner who expects absolute fidelity. In two of the novels reviewed here, the man of the family not only forbids dissent but bullies and humiliates his wife, betraying her trust and driving her to desperation: Jill Alexander Essbaum, in her haunting psychological study, Hausfrau, conjures up a claustrophobic, repressive world in which a wife’s extreme submissiveness makes her “ill with inaction, a person sitting passively in a dark cinema”; Rebecca Whitney’s The Liar’s Chair is a tense, well-constructed domestic thriller that centres on the disintegrating relationship of an apparently prosperous, successful couple. Laura Lippman creates a more complex version of the unequal marriage in her wonderful, nuanced family drama, After I’m Gone, in which the patriarch is a criminal version of the forceful businessman. Having has “made his own game”, he will brook no challenge to the rules he plays by, and, when he absconds, the five women he leaves behind still lead lives dominated by the game he has created, in thrall to his myth and living in constant expectation that he will reach out or return to them.

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