I know what you are thinking, Dear Reader. You are guessing that The Husband purchased this book, having seen the title, in hope of some improvements on the home front! Alas, no, I have no one but myself to thank for this little odyssey. Myself and the marvellous writing of Emma Chapman.
How to be a Good Wife, is actually the eponymous title of the book given to Marta by her fundamentally unlikeable mother-in-law Matilda, upon her marriage to her husband Hector. Set in the fjords of Norway, this is a marriage and indeed a family that seemingly reflects the warmth of the setting. The oddity of having Marta refer time and time again to this book, as a reference point on how to keep your husband happy, sits wonderfully at odds with the story that unfolds. Chapman’s debut novel tells of the disintegration of the marriage between Marta and Hector. This sounds like something that would be hard to read and yet the prose flows so easily that the novel just seemed to vanish without my ever having to make an effort or find time to read it.
The central issue or problem of this novel and indeed what makes it such a marvel, is how the reader feels about an unreliable narrator. I am giving nothing away when I say that, at the very beginning of this novel, Marta decides without the consent of a doctor or indeed anyone else, to come off her medication. Often to be found with a glass of wine in hand, what happens from there is rapid spiral downwards, but a spiral that encompasses memories that may, or may not, be an accurate depiction of actual events from her life. One thing is certain from the very beginning, something appears to be terribly awry at the core of Marta and Hector’s relationship, that may or may not extend far beyond the realms of normality. Chapman gives you no concrete answers, so as a reader all you can do is guess, just as it appears that Marta must have been doing from the very start of her marriage.
Absolute loneliness sits at the very centre of this book. Here is a woman who has no job and no friends. She travels to the nearest town most days to buy groceries, but has never formed any relationships with the locals. The centre of her world is her husband for whom she cooks and cleans, as per How to be a Good Wife. Marta feels to the reader as if she is made of vapor and unhappiness, a woman whose only pleasure comes from the memory of rearing her son, Kylan, now full grown and living in the city. At times you wonder whether what Marta experiences is simply a cry for a more exciting life, for something, anything, to happen. Any sympathy you have for Marta ebbs and flows throughout the book. She holds our pity for large portions of time but then attempts to manipulate her son in the worst possible manner. In one excruciating scene, Kylan returns to the family home with his fiance, only for Marta to behave so terribly that you find your toes curling.
The character of Hector is intriguing to say the least, as everything you know of him is based on Marta’s unreliable account. The book keeps dragging you down and you know that it can only have the most unhappy of conclusions. Somehow, never for a minute, will you contemplate not finishing this story and when you do, you remain uncertain. If you are a person who needs absolutes in life, then this is not for you, but if you enjoy the feeling of always asking ‘Why?’ then pick up this book and be prepared to lose the next few hours of your life. How to be a Good Wife teaches you how to be anything but.