Marriage, murder etc. Part 2

In my last post about the popularity of Marriage Thriller as the latest blockbuster genre, we talked about its intrinsic association with women- by authorship and readership. And how this trend is quickly dismissed as ‘chick noir‘- that annoying term to define any crime/ suspense/ dark fiction that doesn’t feature a masturbatory female model of male imagination.

The popularity of these, and other bestselling thrillers featuring interesting female characters and putting female experiences in forefront, is actually one huge middle finger up patriarchy’s a** when it comes to popular fiction!!

So let us look at my top 10 of the latest Marriage Thrillers, using succinct criteria that will make my snooty teachers of lit. crit. beat themselves up with Literary Theory Vols. 1-17.

** I am only listing English language, post 2011 published titles here. A separate post coming up on my all time favourite modern marriage thriller masterpiece- Out, by Natsuo Kirino.

gone girl1. Gone Girl: THE Wicked witch grandma that kickstarted this trend in the west . Read my post/rant on the book here.

2. wife How To Be A Good Wife by Emma Chapman:
Fucked up relationship: It is your typical old-fashioned marriage- wife looks after the house, husband goes out to earn for the family. The eponymous instructional guide for married women that Marta quotes from is hilariously dated and quaint, as it drones out advice to women on becoming a ‘good wife’, by subsuming their identity for husband and family. But isn’t that the true nature of marriage, most of the times, anyway? The deliberate old fashioned lifestyle acts as a mirror to which the sexism inherent in marriage is held up. And then doubts start creeping up about the true nature of the husband- has he or has he not committed a terrible crime?.
Prose: Moving, slow, hypnotic- mirroring the protagonist’s confused state of mind. Beautiful and melancholy.
Nasty twist: We never know – reality and memories and hallucinations merge together towards a rather lovely open ending. As Marta grasps at her true identity, it becomes clear that power dynamics of a typical, sexist marriage are not very different from a terrible crime that might have been committed.
Creep factor: Not really. The hallucianations/ sightings are described eerily, beautifully, quaintly- but there is nothing that will make you gasp out.
Motherhood: Marta’s disturbed state of mind is heightened by her beloved son’s upcoming marriage. She is a clingy mother who requires constant validation from her son. Her maternal feelings border on pathetic.
Interesting female protagonist: Marta might be suffering from the Empty Nest Syndrome, or re-discovering her real identity, or uncovering a terrible crime. Her fragile state of mind, her possessiveness about her son, her growing despair at marriage, make you sorry for her. I found her obsessiveness about the son annoying . She is not my favourite part of this otherwise gorgeous novel.

3. appleApple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty:
Fucked up relationship: The marriage is not great, but the extra-marital affair is truly kinky, with the otherwise prim-and-propah couple getting over their mid-life-crisis, i.e., getting their kicks from having quickie sex in public places.
Prose: Elegant, sensuous and sometimes cruelly honest, this novel delights in keeping you wondering about the very nature of truth.
Nasty twist: Sort of. A violent event acts as a catalyst of sorts. I am not sure if I don’t find this turn extremely troubling from feminist point of view. The event trades daintily over boundaries of sexual consent and left me feeling queasy is the novel unintentionally punishing Yvonne for daring to be adventurous? I found this to be the biggest flaw/weakness in the otherwise sparkling narrative.
Creep factor: Safety and security of Yvonne’s life, built carefully over 5 decades, is shattered by one callous move, just like that. It is a scary premise, something all of us dread at those wee hours of gasping dreams.
Motherhood: Yvonne’s relationship with her troubled son and an accomplished daughter feature later in the novel. Although it is one of the least touched upon themes in the book, the ending tantalises readers with possibility of a meaningful reunion between mother and son.
Interesting female protagonist: Superb character in Yvonne- a 52-year-old scientist ( whoa!!), she is open to experimenting and throwing caution to the wind. She might come across as snooty, but her passions and morals make her a true hero-however flawed she might be. I think Yvonne is one of the best characters I have come across ever in fiction.

4. brokenBroken Harbour by Tana French:
Fucked up relationship: Like in all Tana French’s novels, this relationship acts as a symbol of Irish society in transition. The economic bubble of the country bursts, the young yuppie couple find themselves at the end of their wits and their bubbly relationship starts crumbling in a horrifying way. French sometimes mocks and sometimes tut-tuts at the shaky ground on which this so called-love-of-life is based. I find this so true of majority of relationships around me.
Prose: Oh, what can one say about her prose? Her writing wants me to recite passages aloud just for the pleasure it provides. French is the master of word-stringing-till-they-create-a-magical-castle technique. The trademark psychological insights, evocative descriptions, dark wit are there with an undercurrent of sympathy for all characters involved.
Nasty twist: Technically, the novel is more of a police procedural, so the there are several twists, the final one not shocking per say, but tragic.
Creep factor: Plenty. Hint of supernatural, brutal violence, hopeless downward spiralling of everyone involved- just your usual Tana French mind-fuck-fest at its best.
Motherhood: The young mother tries to spare her kids the horror of their situation. Like their relationship, she discovers perils of modern parenthood that depends so much of material well-being. The kids’ horrific murder and the possibility of their mother as their killer, threads this shimmering-with- tension novel an extra edge.
Interesting female protagonist: Not really. And I am still waiting for Detective Cassie Maddox to reappear in French’s books.

5. shouldYou Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz:
Fucked up relationship: Grace- a marriage counsellor believes that women should have known that there is something wrong with the relationship from the very go. There are signs that they ignore for the hope of romantic ideal and she attempts to scientifically demonstrate how the mistakes can be avoided. It is given, of course, that her perfect marriage is going to be doomed. It takes a good fifty percent of the book to discover just how truly fucked up the relationship is. And how the celebrated psychologist ignored her insights when it came to her own life. Physician- heal thyself!! The perverse, masochistic delight of reading the book comes from the possibility that the faith we all have in our spouse can be misleading and the foundation of the relationship shaky.
Prose: Elegant, clean and simple- just like Grace herself. The slow pace and the gradual unfurling of terrible secrets are superbly executed.
Nasty twist: Oh yeah!! The major twist gives way to somewhat expected domino effect of tiny twists. There are way too many of them by the end though. It almost makes us doubt Grace’s duplicity. The sheer quantity of them somewhat harms the central premise of the book that you can never know your most intimate partner fully well.
Creep factor: Yes, although the suspense could have been heightened by some read danger to Grace or her loved ones.
Motherhood: Henry- Grace’s son is sensitive and talented. The terrible events transform him from a prep school kid to a young man with courage and future. Grace finds out that it is Henry- who provides her with the will to live and ray of hope. The relationship between mother and son is one of the best parts of the book.
Interesting female protagonist: Grace is strong, smart and ethical. Her very beliefs are shattered which could leave her an empty shell of her former successful being, but thankfully it doesn’t happen. She bravely picks up pieces of her life and rebuilds it. I loved the fact that she is not punished into loosing her career.

Apart from these, the following marriage thrillers are also read-worthy:

6. sleepBefore I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson:
A bestseller novel about Christine who suffers from anterograde amnesia-a disease which makes her forget everything about her past every time she wakes up from sleep. Yes, like in that awful movie 50 First Dates. Thankfully, here we are in for more solid and well-written surprises and twists. The novel challenges the very nature of identity and memory. The twist is truly surprising. Like majority of marriage thrillers, the central premise of the novel questions the sexist power dynamic in intimate relationship. I am keenly waiting for the movie featuring Nicole Kidman.

7. husbandThe Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty:
In this bestseller, Cecilia- a successful and somewhat smug mother of three, discovers a terrible secret about her beloved husband. Her otherwise perfect life is threatened as she needs to choose between safety of her kids and an ethical obligation to reveal the secret. The novel is full of charm, humour and evocative description of close-knit community of families in Sydney. I really enjoyed the novel but the overt championing of ‘family values’ started annoying me by the end. The worst part was the final redemption based on being a good parent. Like a Hindi movie, where no matter what horrible deeds you commit, they are justified as long as you are a loving mother/ father to cutie pie kids.

8. cornerInto The Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes:
A near perfect tale of domestic violence, I loved the character of Catherine. She is spunky, makes mistakes, is not perfect and lives to party. She is what Pramod Muthalik would call a ‘slut’. What happens to her- the violence and life-altering OCD- is not the ‘punishment’ for her lifestyle though, but a tight slap on the notion of victim blaming. It is a disturbing read, to say the least, but not gratuitously so.

9. wifThe Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison:
Marketed as the next Gone Girl, this elegant novel features Jodi and Todd’s not-perfect marriage. And the steps Jodi takes to correct it. I loved that the ethical dilemma is well played out. I found Jodi’s character a bit of cold fish and honestly, I would shudder at the possibility of having such perfect specimen as a spouse. Does that excuse her husband’s sleeping around with a teenager? Absolutely not. Does that mean Jodi should take matters in her manicured hands? Absolutely yes.

10. TASTESeason to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband by Natalie Young:
OK, the premise, as the title not-so-subtly announces, is shocking to say the least. Lizzie, your average English housewife, kills her husband, chops him up , freezes the meat and eats him over a period of seven weeks. It takes the famed Hitchcock story ( where the woman kills her husband with a joint of meat, roasts it and feeds it to the investigating cops- thus effectively destroying the weapon) to new heights. Shocking premise aside, the novel is tame and quite boring. But then, I am a vegetarian and maybe that is the reason I didn’t squirm. A meat is a meat, no? Anyway, the author should have worked more on the real creepiness rather than shock value, methinks.

Here we come to the end of the list, pheeewww…

Even if you don’t read any of the above, do do do read Out, by Natsuo Kirino. She takes the macabre, dark humour, gore, biting social commentary and feminist angst to a level which is not achievable by anyone not born a Japanese. A post on it coming up. Along with Gothic Lit. which is perhaps the great-grandmother of this trend.

OUT

Enjoy reading.

And don’t run to your counsellor if you occasionally feel like killing your spouse.

You are not alone.

Just kidding.

Actually I am not.

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Marriage, murder, etc. Part 1

Hitchcock, the maestro of suspense and morbidity, introduced his iconic show ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents succinctly. ‘ Television has brought back murder in home, where it belongs.’ Said the man who loved to wring our nerves to bits by creating the best suspense ever.

Now the hot selling ‘Marriage thrillers’ are taking up the book world by storm and Hitchcock would have loved it to his morbid pits. Marriages turned sour or plain boring, cheating spouses, deadly secrets, subtle mind games and usually a couple of dead bodies, voila, a successful book that is usually marketed with a tagline, ‘if you liked Gone Girl…’

Gone Girl is a book too clever for its own good, and sexist to boot, but addictive nonetheless. I have devoured almost all the recco readalikes from 2012 onwards and some are good, some bad, some excellent. Overall, I love the premise of intimacy of relationship gone putrid, and these books take a special pleasure in ‘twisted’. If you like Gothic genre, which is also fantastic from feminist point of view, (A post on it some other time.), you will see how this new trend heavily borrows from it. This article does a great job listing these classic female noir writers. (I am not a big fan of the classic noir, but it is interesting how these women writers were sidelined completely in a genre that celebrated depression era angst and virulent sexism at its worst.)

Marriage thriller, typically features a couple in troubled relationship, with a few deadly secrets and eventually a nasty meltdown, usually resulting in a dead body or two. Or three. The writing is evocative, full of tiny details that string the relationship, psychologically nuanced and smart/witty. An elegant morbidity a la Hitchcock hangs in the air, poisoning it oh so daintily, till the facades are torn and ugliness wipes out the oaths of ’till death do us part’.

There are several reasons quoted for the success of this trend. I agree with some of the analysis. After all,intimate relationships ( spouses, lovers, friends, parents, colleagues) are always potent with power dynamics. And it is very easy for power to turn abusive, for abuse to turn violent, for violence to turn bloody. The tiny details that make the relationship dynamic simmer, make for a delicious brew that slowly drips venom in the guise of sweet, normal moments of togetherness.

I also think the trend owes its success to crumbling of marriage as an institution. On one hand, the wedding business has gone through the roof ( it is only business that was not hit by recession, according to a close friend who is a successful wedding photographer), but the naiveté that accompanied the premise of marriage is no more sacrosanct. Virtually everywhere in the world women are asking for divorce in higher numbers and the stereotype of a ‘pathetic middle aged divorcee’ is drowned by high earning power of ( many, if not all) women of a certain class.

But think it boils down to a simple truth: women, like men, want to read interesting and thrilling stories featuring women, and men.

So far, majority of your typical interesting stories in crime/ action genre marginalised women’s experiences , and/or only authorised certain experiences seen from a certain perspective as worthy of being told, and/or ignored a woman’s point of view by making female characters objects rather than active subjects. Now, we have women writers topping bestseller lists in crime genre, writing about diversity of experiences that treat women as people capable of an array of choices in life and women are dominating the readership, thus driving trends.

Many, if not all, writers of this genre are women, and if publishers are to be believed, so are the readers.

What do you expect happens then? Hmm… women’s lit!! Or chick-lit!! Or in this case, Chick Noir.

Because women are ‘women’ while men are people. When men write, produce films, paint, shit, fuck, it is people doing all the said things. When women do the same, it is ‘women’s $#%&’.

And that’s what annoys me, this tag- Chick Noir, that accompanies any dark book which is told from female point of view or has a female character that is not a masturbatory fantasy of a male writer. Like that annoying term ‘Chick Lit’, ‘Chick Noir’ dumps all women writers writing about ‘relationships gone sour’ into one condescending bucket.

Because art that is produced for women or by women is almost always looked down upon, in virtually every culture.

Had Flynn been a male writer or had not written about marriage, but say, about two buddies who play mind games with each other, she would be hailed as 21st Century’s Raymond Chandler. Nobody calls Thomas Harris a ‘serial killer dick lit’ guy, do they, just because he happens to write about serial killers? And you know what, they would have dumped him in the Chick Noir category had he included another strong character like Clarice in his novels and not resorted to Hannibal Lecter fanboyness.

Agatha Christie, the original Queen of Crime escaped the label sheerly because of her male detective, Poirot, while Miss Marple is a far more original detective. Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and other Gothic masterpieces with marriage as a violent catalyst are, well, masterpieces, so they can’t be branded as the offensive ‘chick’ label, can they now?

Sometimes, I want to own this ‘chick %$#%’ label and raise my middle finger. Yes, we are ‘chick’ readers who happen to read about ‘chicks’ who do all sorts of interesting things in a great story. Murder, or invent sci-fi machines, or turn nasty, or do brave acts, or kick ass, or survive in outer space, or rid the world of impending disaster, or teach young kids, or travel around the world looking for redemption.

Because women are people too, I know it is tough to swallow this dramatic truth for majority of ‘man’kind. But it is true. Women’s experiences have been marginalised so far, but it is high time we stopped labelling them as ‘women’s experiences and start looking at them as ‘human’ experiences.

More on some of these popular Marriage thriller books you should read whether you are chicks are not, whether you are married or not, whether you are in a relationship or not, in part 2.