Wednesday 28 September 2016

Evocative tale makes the perfect holiday companion

Fiction: The Missing Wife, Sheila O'Flanagan, Headline Review, pbk, 468 pages, €18.99

Anne Cunningham

Published 24/07/2016 | 02:30

Hard-working: O'Flanagan's meticulous research for the book is obvious. Photo: David Conachy
Hard-working: O'Flanagan's meticulous research for the book is obvious. Photo: David Conachy
The Missing Wife by Sheila Flanagan

Sheila O'Flanagan's 25th book is a big, fat, generous page-turner, clocking in at just under 470 pages. While our thoughts turn to the possibility of summer holidays in sunnier spots, here we have a book set mostly in the Aquitaine region of south-west France, a place the author obviously loves. And she describes the locations with such exacting and persuasive detail, it's difficult not to smell the lavender, the salt of the Atlantic ocean, the richness of the French-pressed morning coffee, the cool, clean air of the Pyrenees.

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Some of it is set in an imaginary road just off Mobhi Road in Dublin's Glasnevin, too - lest we lose the run of ourselves. But it's precisely from this spot that Imogen Naughton goes missing. And it's here, through some fiendishly clever manipulation of dialogue, we learn why.

Imogen and Vince seem to have the perfect DINK (Double-Income-No-Kids) marriage. Vince is climbing the greasy executive pole in insurance, Imogen is working for a French distribution company with an office in Dublin. When asked to accompany her boss on a business trip to Paris, Imogen realises that she can finally implement her Plan. She has been putting money aside for the last couple of years - in secret, telling nobody - so that when the time is right, the Plan can be activated. The Plan is a very simple one - to go missing. And the more we learn about Vince, the more we are assured that even the most long-suffering martyr would go missing on Vince, first chance they got.

There are faint shades of Sleeping with the Enemy here, but O'Flanagan is cleverer than that. Vince is no Martin, so menacingly played by our own Patrick Bergin. Vince is not a violent man. He has never laid a finger on Imogen, nor would he. But this is the kind of marriage where the abuse is much more subtle, much darker, and much more difficult to measure in a divorce court. Vince's abuse is slow, niggling, tenuous and persistent. And he's so good at it, nobody suspects a thing. It has taken Imogen herself a long time to realise her predicament.

Like so many women in similar situations, she believes much of it to be her fault. But, five years on, having somehow cut ties with what remains of her fractured family, and with hardly any friends except for her gym partner, she knows that she can never simply ask for a divorce. She must leave, and she must ensure that she can't be found.

Her business trip to Paris is her golden opportunity to return to her childhood home in Aquitaine, but she must scatter a few red herrings in her wake. She has no doubt that Vince will follow her, sooner rather than later.

There is no tiny detail left unattended to in this novel. Social media being what it is, it's much more difficult to go missing nowadays than it was even five short years ago. Email addresses, GPS tracking apps on mobile phones, Facebook, caller IDs - O'Flanagan has thought of everything, and so ensures that Imogen also thinks of everything.

Imogen is a clever cookie, although her husband is reluctant to admit it, having long ago dissuaded her from following a "dry academic" career with her history degree and insisting that she take a humdrum admin job instead. It's the same humdrum job that finally offers her an opportunity for escape.

Of course this novel is commercial fiction. O'Flanagan is one of our best-known, best-loved and most prolific women's fiction authors. But there's more to this story. The character of Vince is by far the most fascinating. There are none so blind as those who will not see, as the saying goes, and Vince is completely blind to the fact that he is a perpetrator of abuse of any kind. He simply can't fathom that having his own way all the time involves someone else surrendering significant chunks of themselves. He's even got the same quirky "steak on Thursday" trait that made Shirley Valentine's husband Joe so pathetically funny. But Vince as a character is much darker than the hapless Joe Valentine. And he's twice as unaware.

He's a misanthrope who believes everyone is on the make, and almost lands himself in seriously hot water when he attempts to bribe a French official. Suffering from more than an average dollop of paranoia, he believes the world and its mother (and its missing wife) is out to get him. He's the type of individual that we all possibly know, the type who couldn't watch a rugby match because he believes every time there's a scrum, they're talking about him. But he takes life even more personally than our real acquaintances might. And, bless him, he hasn't got a friend in the world. Without his wife, he is utterly alone, with nobody to face except himself. O'Flanagan paints him with vivid, flawless, authentic brush strokes and I believe she's to be commended for it.

With the season that's in it, and most of us looking forward to some kind of a break, even if it's only here in Ireland, this book is bound to sell well. Holidays are about relaxation of the mind as well as the body. Many avid readers look for something a bit lighter than their usual book diet when they take a break. You might be heading to Ballybunion instead of Biarritz for your summer holidays, but you can have all the sights and sounds and smells of the south of France here with O'Flanagan's affectionate depiction of Aquitaine. This book is nothing if not evocative.

You'll also have an entertaining read, not without its funny moments, despite the gloomy, neurotic and menacing Vince. Romance is thrown in for good measure, but - like life - it's found quite accidentally, when it's not being sought.

It's a thoroughly satisfying, well-paced plot from a sure and experienced pen. To be enjoyed, perhaps, with a glass or two of decent Bordeaux?

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