Alaka Prodhan reviews Manchester born author Emma Chapman’s debut novel.
Marta Bjornstad is a loving wife and mother. Her son, Kylan, has long since grown up and left home; her husband, Hector, some 20 years her senior, teaches Maths at the local school. In the unnamed, remote Scandinavian village which she calls her home, Marta’s days roll by from one to the next in a longstanding routine of homely domesticity: washing, cleaning, cooking, ironing, daily trips to the market – punctuated by Hector’s returns from work and the exciting prospect of a visit from the son she so dearly misses.
But there is something sinister at play beneath this too-simple portrait of a quiet and happy married life. Apparent from the novel’s opening lines is Marta’s uncertainty of her own feelings, memories, even the very fundamentals of her personality.
“Today, somehow, I am a smoker. I did not know this about myself. As far as I remember, I have never smoked before”
We journey with Marta as unbeknownst to her attentive husband, she stops taking her medication and begins to ponder that she has never ventured further then the borders of her tiny village.
“I never go beyond the hotels, I haven’t in the whole time I’ve been here. These are my limits: the hotels on this side of the fjord, and the doctor’s surgery on the other.”
And then there’s the young girl with the blonde hair in dirty white pyjamas. Who is she and why is it that only Marta can see her?
There is a pervasive sense of dread as Marta comes to question the solidity of her own happiness and the very core of her own identity, which has been subsumed for so long in her roles of wife and mother; roles which have come to define her so completely. Suddenly, there are shadows in every corner.
Emma Chapman’s debut novel offers no easy answers. It is, on the one hand, a taut, economically written and expertly woven thriller – deceptive in its simplicity and chilling in the claustrophobia that builds with each successive page. It is also a deeply unsettling exploration of a fragile mind unravelling, either through the weight of its own paranoid delusions, or painful memories too-long suppressed.
Not only does the novel explore the experience and effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome, it also compels you to reflect on the dangers of a life lived on other people’s terms.
How To Be A Good Wife is a highly assured, powerful and thought-provoking offering from an author whose best work is surely yet to come. It will stay with you long after you turn the final page.
Emma Chapman was born in 1985 and grew up in Manchester. She currently lives in Perth, Western Australia.
Emma will be launching her book in Manchester at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation on Wednesday 6th February, 2013 at 6.30pm. Entry is free.
By Alaka Prodhan (@EchoingBronze)