Thursday 27 July 2017

What happens when good women fall for bad men

Two contemporary Irish novels portray how public perfection often masks what goes on behind closed doors

Faith Hogan's 'My Husband's Wives' tells a story of duplicity and loss with a happy ending. Photo : Keith Heneghan
Faith Hogan's 'My Husband's Wives' tells a story of duplicity and loss with a happy ending. Photo : Keith Heneghan

Anne Marie Scanlon

If there is one thing you can depend on contemporary fiction for - it is to reflect the concerns of modern women. One of the themes in Faith Hogan's My Husband's Wives (Aria €11.99) is domestic violence. When Paul Starr, Ireland's leading cardiologist, dies in a car crash, he leaves behind not just one, but three widows. Older posh Evie, clever and beautiful painter Grace, and glamour model Annalise. Despite the fact that Paul is so well known, he has managed to dupe Grace and Annalise into thinking they were in valid marriages with him. At the time of his death, he has three children; teenage Delilah with Grace, and two small sons with Annalise. He has moved out with the latter and is in a car with a young pregnant Romanian woman, Kasia, when the fatal accident occurs. Is Kasia his latest love? Is the baby his?

If you approach My Husband's Wives as a fairy story, then you may be able to read it with some enjoyment. All four women are nothing short of saints - when they find out that Paul has duped them all, they are only mildly shocked. Instead of being (rightly) angry, they instead moon about, missing him terribly and lamenting the passing of such a fine, loving man. Grace and Evie unite to organise Paul's funeral "they both put Paul first - in life as in death". The three 'wives' all rally around Kasia, and her pregnancy gives them all a focus (they're all remarkably sanguine that she is possibly carrying his child).

Kasia lives in terror of her abusive ex-boyfriend Vasile. The three 'wives' are all full of righteous indignation about the way Vasile has treated poor Kasia - Vasile is physically abusive, controlling and coercive. Yet, amazingly, none of these supposedly intelligent women acknowledges that Paul, who kept his life compartmentalised and his offspring apart, was just as controlling and coercive as the two-dimensional Vasile. While Paul had moved on with his life, he ensured that the 'wives' didn't. The story is told from the perspective of all four women but unfortunately the voices of the narrators all sound exactly the same. Predictably, the women all move forward towards both a collective and individual happy ending (like a good fairy tale generally does). There is a decent twist towards the end - one which I didn't see coming but, unfortunately, it just entrenched my views about the late, lamentable Paul.

By contrast, The Woman at 72 Derry Lane by Carmel Harrington (Harper Collins €11.99) gives a nuanced view of both the perpetrator and the victim of domestic violence. Stella has been married to perfectionist Matt for a year and he controls every aspect of her life, from finances to diet to internet access. No matter how hard Stella tries to meet Matt's standards, she fails and pays the price by being severely beaten.

Grooming is a word usually associated with children but domestic tyrants also groom their victims, eroding their sense of self and self-esteem until they are rendered helpless. Harrington has obviously done her research and manages to portray the answer to that endless question from outsiders:"why does she stay?"

The couple live next door to Rea who suffers from agoraphobia so severe that she has to pay a neighbour's child to bring her bins to the garden gate. Once Rea was happily married and had two children, but now she is utterly alone and spends her days having conversations with Siri.

Both Rea and Stella are trapped, as the latter says: "I don't think we are that different. Our worlds are small. And we are both prisoners." The two women form an unlikely friendship as Rea supports Stella in her secret plan to flee her abusive husband.

Despite the rather harrowing theme of intimate partner violence, The Woman at 72 Derry Lane is, at heart, a warm novel. As Rea says: "Love doesn't hurt. Loving the wrong person does".

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