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 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.
Jill Alexander Essbaum, Hausfrau, Random House (January 2015)
Hausfrau is a bleak, darkly compelling novel, beautifully written, sensual, subtle, often witty and, at times, utterly harrowing. The story of Anna Benz, a bored, adulterous housewife, has been seen as a modern version of Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina; readers of twentieth-century crime fiction might also be reminded of the thwarted, ineffectual noir victim-protagonists of James M. Cain, Horace McCoy and David Goodis – isolated, despondent, passive characters who hopelessly acquiesce in a fate dictated both by circumstance and by their own self-destructiveness. In interview Essbaum says of Anna, “She’s actually not living her life at all. She’s going through her life’s motions.”
Anna is an American married to Bruno, a mid-level manager in Credit Suisse. She has lived for nearly a decade in a small town near Zurich, during which time she has acquired almost none of the requisites of an independent existence. She has no driver’s licence or bank account, no role in handling the family’s finances, little fluency in the language. As she realizes in conversations with her Jungian analyst, her passivity is a symptom of her complicity: “Allowing Bruno to make decisions on her behalf absolved her of responsibility… She rode a bus that someone else drove. And Bruno liked driving it.” Though he can be terrifying when he goes “beyond anger”, Bruno is not habitually violent. But he is gruff and remote, and Anna has “learned to tiptoe and step slowly”, fearful of arousing his ire by intruding on his silences.
As a counterpoint to her domestic submissiveness, her affairs get progressively more dangerous – “I’m cheating on the man I’m cheating on my husband with, Anna thought. I grow less decent every passing day.” She realises that she is spinning out of control: “Take one lover, you may as well take twenty, Anna thought. They’re like salty snacks. You can’t stop at one.” As in 1940s noir melodramas (Mildred Pierce, for example), there are harsh punishments awaiting those guilty of transgression and excess. Like Anna’s meetings with her therapist, the language classes she takes are used throughout to provide uncomfortably insightful commentaries on the course she is pursuing. Lecturing on the conditional, her German teacher says, “’Zum Beispiel, if I am sick tomorrow, then I will not go to school’… Anna found little relief in this. If I am caught . . . then I am fucked.” Several readers of Hausfrau have expressed their frustration – even their incredulity – at Anna’s combination of intelligence with an almost total inability to escape the if-then logic of the conditional – to act to save herself. But it is in part the remorselessness of Essbaum’s plotting that is so hypnotically compelling. It’s a novel that – at least for this reader – lingers disturbingly in one’s mind for a very long time.
Rebecca Whitney, The Liar’s Chair, Mantle (March 2015)
Like Hausfrau, The Liar’s Chair centres on an adulterous wife and her fraught, toxic relationship with a repressive husband. Rachel Teller habitually submits to the demands of David, her overwhelmingly domineering partner. “You’re all mine,” he tells her, and he will go to some lengths to ensure his continued possession of her: “He gave me boundaries and curfews, rules for my friendships…”
The mechanisms of control begin to crumble, however, when Rachel takes a lover and, after a drunken assignation, hits a man with her car, hiding the body in panic and submitting to David when he insists that they cover up the accident. Rachel accedes to his demands, but with guilt, distrust and anger seething under the surface she begins to fear the worst: “If he can’t bring me into line there is nowhere I can disappear to that will be far enough away. Before, the penalties were only ever emotional, but it feels like something in me has broken and the old ways of settling things will no longer work.”
Whitney skillfully combines domestic melodrama with the fast-paced world of the thriller, holding readers’ attention with a taut, economical narrative. As the central relationship breaks down completely, the plot developments become more gripping, the psychological conflicts darker and increasingly violent. More or less everyone in The Liar’s Chair behaves very badly. Their efforts to solve problems are spectacularly misjudged; they are socially dysfunctional and morally despicable. We are repelled, but at the same time anxious to know what happens to them. Our fascination is a tribute to the disturbing acuity of Whitney’s twisted psychological portraits.
Laura Lippman, After I’m Gone, William Morrow (February 2014)
In After I’m Gone, the man of the house is conspicuous by his absence. The novel originated in a true story: Felix, head of the Brewer family, is loosely based on Julius Salsbury, who ran a gambling operation in 1970s Baltimore and then, convicted of mail fraud, absconded rather than serve a prison sentence. In transforming these events into a novel, Laura Lippman places Felix offstage, brilliantly constructing her narrative around the women he deserted. The family saga that unfolds is, like all of Lippman’s fiction, subtle, beautifully written and sharply observed, compelling our attention throughout.
After Felix takes flight, his wife, his mistress and his three daughters are left struggling to define their lives without the forceful presence of a man whose dominance and drive had seemed irresistible – the man who “wanted to be rich rich, as he called it, no-doubt-about-it rich. Stinking rich. Screw-the-world rich.” His wife, Bambi, tough in her own way, had reconciled herself to his view of life and his infidelities, listening with patient scepticism to his excuses (“’Everything I do, I do for you.’ She had thought it was quite the stupidest thing she had ever heard.”). What is far less forgivable, in her view, is his cowardice in abandoning his family, but she nevertheless finds herself unable to move forward without reference to Felix. Her daughters, though less disabled by long-established habits of submission, also live under the burden of their father’s myth, which only grows more potent in his decades of absence, even after the “terrible confidences” imparted by their mother.
The mysteries surrounding Felix’s disappearance deepen when, ten years after his departure, the ‘other woman’, Julie, goes missing. It is assumed that she has gone to join Felix. But fifteen years later, when her body is discovered in Leakin Park, an investigator – a retired cop – begins to unravel the confusions, misconceptions and guilty secrets that Felix left behind. Lippman brings into play her enormous skills in seamlessly weaving together detective fiction and domestic melodrama. The investigative process ultimately brings into satisfying focus the role of Felix and his deeply flawed relationships. Most importantly, we’re brought to understand the characters of the women who found themselves unable to escape his influence, even when they were, like Bambi’s mother, “onto Felix”, and realized that they should never have been willing “to buy what he was selling”.