ISBN: 1742612016 (ISBN13: 9781742612010)
First AWW Review for 2015!
The Husband’s Secret – Review
What is the worst thing that could happen to you? Setting aside climate change, nuclear holocaust and fatal pandemic (Emily St John Mandel has this last covered in Station Eleven) and focussing on the world of the personal and individual, might it be the loss of a child? Loss of a husband? Loss of life as you know it?
What if that happened to you?
These are the broad sweeping themes of “The Husband’s Secret”, explored via three female characters; Cecilia, Tess and Rachel. The exposure of the big secret happens when Cecelia accidentally discovers a letter addressed to her, from her husband, John-Paul, to be opened in the event of his death. Her first dilemma – to open or not to open it? Would you? When Cecelia mentions the letter to the handsome husband, the cream-of-the-crop husband, his reaction is peculiar – he flips it off as a piece of long ago melodramatic silliness – she knows he’s lying.
Meanwhile, Melbourne based, self-diagnosed socially-anxious Tess discovers her husband is having an affair with her cousin Felicity – Felicity, with whom she has been joined at the hip since childhood and who is the fourth person in the family, the third person in the business with she and husband Will. So, devastated, Tess goes home to mum in Sydney and thereby enters the arena where the story unfolds.
The third woman, Rachel, more or less runs the primary school that Cecelia and Tess attended as children, and Cecilia’s three girls attend now and where Tess’ son Liam will attend while Tess sorts thing out. Rachel, a generation older, once had a daughter too, her precious Janie, who was murdered at the age of seventeen. The murderer was never caught and Rachel has never recovered. She suspects that the murderer was Connor Whitby (who ‘had lies in his eyes’; lovely phrase) — an old boyfriend of Tess’ and more recently a teacher in the school … and who Cecelia’s little girl, Polly has a crush on.
And thus the interlinking circumstances are set up for the truth about Janie’s death to unfold as the story unfolds at a spanking pace (mostly). I was glad of that, having had to overcome something of a prejudice about ‘chick lit’ to get this book off last years AWW personal reading list.
I don’t really know what ‘chick lit’ means’, though presumably the concentration on the domestic scenario and the internality of much of what gives the depth to the characters has something to do with it. There were a (quite) a few laugh out loud bits, for example, Cecilia, puzzling about ‘the sex thing’ having mysteriously faded between her and Jean-Paul, wonders about Father Joe – how could he choose celibacy in this day and age? Did he masturbate? Was he allowed to? … and other such questions people really ask, if only in their own minds. Speculating about what might be wrong, she wonders about John-Paul (although I think being named after a Pope would be enough to kill any mans libido) –
“Perhaps he was gay.That’s why he’d gone off sex. He’d been faking his heterosexuality all these years. Well, he’d certainly done a good job of it. She thought back to the early years when they used to have sex three or four times in one day. That would really have been above and beyond the call of duty if he was only faking his interest.
He quite enjoyed musicals. He loved Cats! And he was better at doing the girls’ hair than her. Whenever Polly had ballet concert she insisted John-Paul be the one to put her hair in a bun. He could talk arabesques and pirouettes with Polly as wells he could talk soccer with Isabel, and the Titanic with Esther. Also, he adored his mother. Weren’t gay men particularly close to their mothers? Or was that a myth?
He owned an apricot polo shirt, and ironed it himself.
Yes, he was probably gay.”
It’s exactly the kind of irrational internal dialogue we all know so well, and Moriarty has interspersed this scene with sharp observation of sexism, ageing and coming of age, all with a wonderfully deft hand and light touch.
Apparently Moriarty is well known for her humour and lightness, both in full throttle in this book. It’s easy to miss the depth of observation of the human condition, the life of ordinary women. The humour also interferes with, to some degree, full engagement with the dark themes of this book, the most dominant of which is loss. It’s a tricky balance, but for the most part she pulls it off. The repeating ‘what if’ questions helps her do it, inviting the reader to stand in the shoes of the character, or speculate what it might be like to wrangle with the very difficult things encountered. Here Moriarty is unsparing and we are saved from despair or depression by a well timed comical intervention. I’m ambivalent about whether I liked this or not since it robs the heft of the story of it’s potential gravitas, but since life is short, lets be generous and say it’s a good thing.
The setting is in a Catholic community; I took this to be a comment on the effect of belief and faith; on the down side, fervent belief (like Rachel’s unshakeable conviction about Connor) can lead to failing to see what is right in front of you, or seeing what isn’t really there. On the upside, it creates community (the school and it’s community), creativity and belonging. And this is what gets us through. No judgement is passed; it is as it is.
And, right at the end, Moriarty takes us down another what-if path that neatly turns the whole thing on it’s head. Brilliant.