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Murderous disintegration of a marriage is all too believable in first and final novel

by Alison Flood

The Observer

Jodi Brett is beautiful, rich and intelligent. A psychotherapist, she is also, as A.S.A. Harrison’s debut opens, “deeply unaware that her life is now peaking … that a few short months are all it will take to make a killer of her.” Because her partner of 20 years, Todd Gilbert, never a faithful man, has fallen for someone else and is leaving her.

The Silent Wife, by A.S.A. Harrison. Penguin, 2013, 384 pp., $16 (paperback)

Set in Chicago, “The Silent Wife” switches between Todd and Jodi’s perspectives. Neither of them is easy to warm to; both are damaged products of difficult upbringings. She is all about appearances, happy to pretend she doesn’t know about Todd’s numerous infidelities while keeping a perfect home for him: roses which “bloom profusely from scattered vases,” cold white wine left open for his return home, crackers topped with smoked oysters in case he’s hungry.

He is utterly unable to see the truth of things or to face up to the reality of his situation, telling himself earnestly that “loving one more doesn’t mean loving another less” while — purely to avoid confrontation — keeping both of his women in the dark about his actions.

We are told from the start that Jodi will become a killer, but Harrison takes her time, building and building the small details that make Jodi’s move to commit the unspeakable believable. She might look perfect from the outside, but it’s disturbing to see her pandering to her husband’s whims and then to learn how she takes small revenges for his (until now relatively minor) indiscretions. “Without some discreet retaliation to balance things out, a little surreptitious tit for tat to keep the grievances at bay, most relationships — hers included — would surely combust in a blaze of resentment,” she believes.

She is cool and brittle — “the brittleness that goes with endurance. The day will come, she imagines, when fine cracks appear in her skin and go about branching and splitting till she comes to resemble the crackle-glaze vase on the mantel.” Todd, torn between the desires of two women more intelligent and more powerful than himself, is less fleshed out. But as the novel advances into treacherous territory, Harrison’s elegant, incisive prose gets dirtier, more dangerous, until even the apartment which Jodi once kept so beautifully is described as “the lair of some repellent animal.”

“The Silent Wife” (“Jodi’s great gift is her silence, and he has always loved this about her … but silence is also her weapon. The woman who refuses to object, who doesn’t yell and scream — there’s strength in that, and power,” thinks Todd) is Harrison’s first novel, and sadly her last. The author died in April at the age of 65 while at work on a new psychological thriller. Detailing the disintegration of a relationship, her final work has drawn comparisons with Gillian Flynn’s smash hit “Gone Girl,” but it’s a very different sort of book: colder, less dramatic, and ultimately a frighteningly possible portrait of a marriage, of how things can slip so far without either party realizing, of how murder can slowly, insidiously, begin to seem like the best — the only — option.