August 16, 2012
(++) BIT OF A MESS, THIS
The Other Woman’s House. By Sophie Hannah. Penguin. $15.
The notion of starting a story in medias res, in the middle of things, is a very old one, dating back even farther than the Latin of the phrase – to Homer’s Odyssey, which picks up in the middle and, through flashbacks, fills in what we now call the “back story.” There is a problem, though, when an author starts not just in the middle of things but in the middle of lots of things, which is what Sophie Hannah does in her sixth novel, The Other Woman’s House. This is a book that relies entirely too heavily on genre conventions in order to pull readers into a story involving people who are not interesting or believable enough to interest an audience on their own.
It starts with an intriguing enough mystery: a happily married woman named Connie Bowskill (who is not really happy in her marriage, for reasons initially undisclosed) searches a real-estate Web site in the middle of the night and, when looking at a house that we know from the book’s title (but not from the narrative) somehow involves “the other woman,” spots a body during the virtual tour – a woman’s body, lying in a huge pool of blood. Terrified, she wakes up her husband, who comes to the computer and sees nothing of the sort – just a room. Since there are already signs that Connie is unstable, you would think the whole matter would be written off; but no, Connie pursues it by calling Detective Simon Waterhouse, who, however, is unavailable because he is on his honeymoon with Detective Charlie (female) Zailer. So Connie talks with Detective Sam Kombothekra, whose difficult last name is mildly commented upon and who is not as good as Simon but wants to be, and who therefore takes on this matter as a sort of challenge – all of this referring back to events in previous books that Hannah has no right to assume people have read.
Meanwhile, the honeymooners are busy not having sex, which disturbs Charlie even though she is so intimidated (or something) by Simon that she will not make the first move, but prefers to brood and become snappish; and Simon, contacted because of the mystery of the dead body that isn’t there, plays a really nasty trick on Charlie, which is apparently all right because of, again, a relationship stretching back to books before this one.
Also meanwhile, thanks to a family scene designed to provide more background on Connie, we learn that Connie not only has a dysfunctional (but close-knit) clan but also is pretty well off the deep end, because she has no problem discussing the body she thought she saw but cannot bring herself to mention that she has been brooding about serious marital issues (which, however, may not exist) for the past six months.
The whole first part of The Other Woman’s House is a tapestry of unbelievability mixed with silliness, with no reason whatsoever given for anyone to believe Connie’s incredible story – or for Connie to avoid seeing a psychiatrist, although she does see a homeopath who is a therapist of sorts, and who has been close to Simon (although not in that way) but hasn’t seen him for years. And here yet again, readers are supposed to pick up on things that happened well before the start of this book.
Flashbacks and explanations do fill in some of the background as the book progresses, but the rattletrap beginning hangs over the proceedings for quite a long time. Indeed, if it weren’t for the fact that Hannah suddenly changes the tone and entire speech pattern of Connie a little after page 120, the book would be a hopeless mess. But Hannah does put the whole story on firmer footing at that point, as Connie starts to reveal her marital worries to Sam; and Hannah also relies heavily on genre conventions so readers will understand that, in a mystery, what the unstable character cannot possibly have seen is going to turn out to be some sort of key to whatever is going on. This is shortchanging readers’ intellect, true, and also short-circuiting storytelling itself, which works better when it flows naturally than when it relies on conventional treatment of a particular kind of story arc. But within her limits, Hannah does bring the narrative on track and into focus.
So far so good, or at least so adequate. But then Hannah makes Connie’s thinking and behavior even weirder and more bizarre, as if Connie has had (another) personality transplant, and not long before page 300, she is an entirely different character from the one she has been before – but still, under any reasonable appraisal, absolutely bonkers. However, Hannah again relies on the conventions of the genre to make sure that this wholly unappealing character (one among many here, not excluding Simon and Charlie – she is just as venal, petty and small-minded as he) proves to be able to see things that no one else can quite understand. The plot goes beyond straining credulity – it is laughably ridiculous, except that Hannah makes it clear that this is really serious stuff, which somehow only makes it even more absurd.
Well, readers who get past the first 30% or so of the book – particularly ones already familiar with Hannah’s style and characterization, such as they are – will enjoy seeing how Hannah pulls the people and themes together and knits the threads of the mystery into a reasonably satisfying (if never fully believable) tapestry. The problem is that the authorial hand pulling those threads is everywhere so evident: characters are motivated to do things because the plot requires them to be motivated to do those things, not because the characters have any depth of personality that makes their actions inevitable (or even understandable). Readers familiar with Hannah’s first five books will have a significantly easier go of it here than ones coming to her work for the first time with The Other Woman’s House, which is terribly clunky on many levels if not quite, in the end, an actual clunker.