In 1955, Housekeeping Monthly published an article called “The Good Wife’s Guide.” The article detailed all the ways a wife could keep her husband happy, including such gems as “Be a little gay and a little more interesting for him. His boring day may need a lift and one of your duties is to provide it” and “Listen to him. You may have a dozen important things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time. Let him talk first – remember, his topics of conversation are more important than yours.”
These are the tenets by which Marta Bjornstad, the narrator of Emma Chapman’s debut novel How to Be a Good Wife, lives. Married for many years to the much older, Hector, a school teacher, and mother of one adult son, Kylan, Marta’s life somewhere in a remote Scandinavian village is structured and isolated.
Twelve fifteen. By this time, I am usually working on something in the kitchen. I must prepare supper for this evening, the recipe book propped open on the stand that Hector bought me for an early wedding anniversary. I must make bread: mix the ingredients in a large bowl, knead it on the cold wooden worktop, watch it rise in the oven. Hector likes to have fresh bread in the mornings. Make your home a place of peace and order.
Things in Marta’s life are starting to unravel, though. For one thing, Marta has stopped taking the pills she has been taking for years. The last time she stopped, Kylan was twelve and Marta “wanted something to happen.” Back then, without the medication came “the heavy darkness”; this time is different. Marta starts seeing someone: a little blonde girl.
She stares without blinking, her grey eyes wide and glossy. Her hair is very messy: dirty, almost grey, though the broken ends are blonde. She is wearing grimy white pyjamas, her thin arms wrapped loosely around her bony knees.
There’s no question that something is off in the Bjornstad house and Chapman does a terrific job of unsettling the reader. Marta makes a compelling narrator because although she might seem unreliable, (is she a woman suffering from empty-nest syndrome, menopause, a mental break-down? These are all plausible scenarios.) as the mist lifts things take a decided turn in a horrifying direction.
I read How to Be a Good Wife in one sitting and thoroughly enjoyed it.