Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Wife by Alafair Burke

Reading Alafair Burke for the first time was always going to come with an unfair comparison for me. I discovered her father, James Lee Burke, in 2018 and have read a half-dozen or so of his books so far. He has one of the best prose styles going in any genre. I’m a sucker for Catholic writers (Flannery O’Connor, Gene Wolfe, Tim Powers, Graham Greene, Walker Percy…) and Burke fits into that group easily. He writes mostly mysteries and I’ve enjoyed him immensely. At some point I realized that he had a daughter and that she also wrote crime fiction. I both wanted to read her, and wanted to do so without unfairly comparing her to her father. Fortunately I found a great place to start with her in The Wife, which I found at a library sale last year. Her prose is not as lushly descriptive as her father’s, but is nonetheless excellent. While both write novels that could be fairly described as thrillers their approaches are different enough that I was easily able to shake the urge to compare quickly. They write in different enough modes that the comparison wouldn’t even come up if they weren’t related. And she is, as one would hope, much better at writing believable women characters.

This book was published at the exact right time; it came out in 2018. While it was written before the allegations against Weinstein et al started to come out in torrents, it could not have been more relevant. A reductive way to describe the book would be to say, what if Gone Girl* had been structured around the concerns of the #metoo movement. That would do it a disservice, though. It handles a lot of psychological thriller tropes in a very satisfying and fresh way. While the comparison is apt, this is no mere knockoff. There are multiple narrative voices. Angela Powell, who jealously guards her past narrates a lot of it in the first person, and is an excellent use of an unreliable narrator. There are several other characters who are narrated third person, most prominent being Corraine Duncan, a detective trying to figure out who is lying. There are also emails and documents from Powell’s husband, Jason, and his lawyer. Jason, a high profile liberal talking head, is, at the outset of the book, accused of harassing one of his grad assistants. Shortly afterward, another woman accuses him of rape. The story plays out as Angela tries to sort through her feelings while trying to keep her traumatic past a secret. The reader, like the detective character, is trying to sort out who is lying; because someone is.

To go into much more detail would spoil some excellent plot twists, so I will refrain. I quite enjoyed the novel, despite its uncomfortable subject matter. Burke displays a real understanding of the nuances of how people feel when their loved ones are plausibly accused of sexual assault. It also understands the uphill battle facing any woman who accuses a powerful man of such acts. Those understandings play an uncomfortable counterpoint to what could be perceived as some more nihilistic elements and a low view of human nature. That slight dissonance, though, along with its relentless pace, keeps the book from being didactic. And its commentary hits all the harder for it. It’s a fully realized thriller, and I will certainly be seeking out more of Alafair Burke’s work in the future.

Highly Recommended (with a fairly heavy content warning as it deals frankly, though not explicitly  with sexual assault).

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 28/75

*I’m going off the movie, having not read the book.

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