By Emily Perkins
Bloomsbury, NZ$35 | Reviewed by Amy Brown

TOM, a screenwriter and solo father in his early-forties, cannot stop thinking about his dead wife. With an honest, imperfect passion, he writes a novel about Ann, organising his memories and speculations of their time together. With the gradual revelation of how and why Ann died, Tom appears to make peace with his situation and Emily Perkins ensures that her fourth book is both suspenseful and emotionally complex.

This novel has aspects that I did not immediately like. Why, I found myself wondering, do quirky heroines always have a thick auburn mane, a history of drug abuse and a talent for sculpting? Ann, Tom is quick to point out, was different from the insipid English girls with which he was usually embroiled. She was Australian, genuinely tough, practical and mysterious. Instead of pursuing an art career, Ann sculpted plaster casts of cancer patients in the radiotherapy unit at the local hospital. With their familiar friends (reminiscent of characters from Cold Feet), artistic but comfortable poverty and artfully interesting careers, Ann and Tom seem, initially, like hastily disguised stereotypes. However, as the plot steers them into places their types wouldn’t go, they become more natural and interesting.

Pregnant at 38 and apparently being stalked by a threatening figure, Ann, drifts towards her mysterious death with a disturbing inevitability. The way in which these handsome, middle-class characters are gradually maddened by their circumstances reminded me strongly of Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now. The fact that their story is being recounted via Tom’s at times uncomfortably self-aware narration gives this deceptively simple novel another layer of fascination. A technique which, at first, irked, was Tom’s decision to write the parts of his wife’s story he could be sure about on a word processor and his own speculations on a type-writer. How clumsy, I thought, as he explained the glaring font change. How clever, I thought, later on; Perkins, well aware of the blurring of speculation and objective fact when it comes to memories, was, with this effect, emphasising Tom’s vulnerability in his own story. What at first seemed like a cheap trick became a compelling means of representing how Tom – as a fairly unsuccessful screenwriter attempting a novel, and a scarred husband trying to make sense of his late wife’s life and death – would write.

It’s easy to forget that Perkins had much to do with Novel About My Wife; Tom’s narration and point of view are so constant and conscious of the act of writing and remembering, the novel truly seems to belong to him. This structure, while simple in terms of voice, has the scope to provide thorough and complex characterisation and a great deal of controlled suspense. After finishing this book almost in one sitting, I couldn’t help comparing it with Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love. Like McEwan, who at his best is a master of the restrained and erudite thriller, Perkins has managed to create a sinister page-turner equipped with literary complexity. I wouldn’t be surprised if, like Enduring Love, Novel About My Wife eventually makes its way to the big screen.