Embroiling her heroine in a collection of detailed musings, Chapman sets her taut thriller in a comfortable household that reveals the false facade of happiness and financial security. Here a husband and wife revolve around each other like moths around the flame. This is Chapman’s stark, unforgiving treatment of men and women whose lives are combined in a dreadful undercurrent of desperation.
Marta is a young and still lovely mother, but she’s also lonely; her son, Kylan, has recently flown the coup. She has little contact with the outside world other than with her husband’s mother Matilda, a fanatical organizer of Marta’s home who once presented her with the book How to be A Good Wife. Marta channels a sense of disquiet; we know that something is not quite right in her life. She possesses little self-respect and is somewhat detached from her husband, Hector, who encourages her behavior. He has no inkling that she’s not taking the medication that he hands out like a secret sacrifice.
To Hector, his wife is just a feather, an adorable little bird unable to see the wood for the trees. Marta is his doll who keeps his house charming and is never supposed to worry about serious matters. Living day to day, Marta remembers little about her past and is meant to be comforted by the fact that Hector is here to make her safe. With “his calm blue eyes, and his mouth slightly curved down at the corners,” Hector’s long shadow of menace folds over her as her role as his wife is clearly delineated.
Chapman builds her thriller around Marta, our first-person narrator, who tells us that her skin crawls. This may well be true as things start to show themselves: the smell of a musty bedroom, a metal frame and a mattress with creaking springs. Then a strange, echoing fear ripples throughout, slipping through the cracks that have formed in Marta’s memory. Although she lacks the ability to tell us about her past, it’s not her place to ask questions, nor to question Hector’s authority. Still, the voices, combined with strange visions, tell her there is something just out of reach that she can feel shifting inside of her.
Hector is a shadowy, enigmatic character who causes his wife great mental distress, verging on the sleazy as he desperately seeks to keep his teaching position at a local school. Marta’s beloved son, Kylan, wants Marta’s blessing over his engagement to Katya. He’s excited about moving in with Katya and about his new job working at a bank in the City. Lastly, there is ever-faithful Matilda, who harbors a secret resentment of her daughter-in-law while remaining devoted to her loving son, despite his thinly veiled brutality.
As the scenes melt into each other and Marta’s chilling story progresses, she becomes entrenched in a myriad of family ties though she aches to be free of her accepted domestic shackles. The ghastly and uncomfortable dinner party for Kylan forms the core as Chapman unfolds her heroine’s terror, visualizing her state of mind for readers. Marta gets drunk in front of her family, deathly terrified that her macabre plan to breathe and break free of her crushing existence will come to nothing.
Setting her novel among the bucolic valleys and fiords of an unnamed Scandinavian country, Chapman meshes her modern tale with the discoveries uncovered by Marta as she researches her shadowy history. Although the ending deflates the novel’s power somewhat, its greatest strength is how it challenges the notion of reality. Are Marta’s fragmented visions part of a real construct or something a little less tangible? Chapman digs deep to the very soul of her insular, hesitant heroine whose life proves both so fascinating and disturbing.