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Bad marriage makes for good reading

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Nobody wants to read about happy marriages. Unhappy, possibly murderous marriages, however, are addictively interesting.

The Silent Wife, the latest addition to the husband-wife death-match genre, is not as self-consciously literary as Adam Ross's Mr. Peanut nor as compulsively page-turning as Gillian Flynn's bestselling Gone Girl.

A.S.A. Harrison, a Toronto non-fiction writer making a confident fiction debut, hits the sweet spot in between. With acute characterization and slow-building suspense, this intelligent psychological thriller is really more about a contemporary marriage's flawed foundations than its spectacular end.

The novel's viewpoint alternates between Jodi and Todd -- chapters are headed "Her" or "Him" -- gradually charting the dissolution of their 20-year relationship.

The couple lives in a sleek waterfront Chicago condo. Jodi works halftime as an Adlerian therapist, which leaves hours for her orderly domestic routines: she likes to fold Todd's newspaper and prepare his favourite foods. Todd is a property developer, successful but overextended.

Todd is also a serial adulterer. Jodi knows, and Todd knows that she knows. "But the point is that the pretence, the all-important pretence must be maintained," according to Jodi, who is better at diagnosing other people's rationalizations than her own.

Pretence gets blown to messy hell with Todd's latest conquest, the very young Natasha, who happens to be the daughter of his best friend. Natasha becomes pregnant and demands marriage.

This is where the possibility of murder comes in. (This isn't a spoiler, by the way: The intention is announced in the first few pages, the real tension coming from how it might play out.)

Tracking the would-be killer and the heedless victim, we learn more about Jodi and Todd's early days -- they meet, appropriately enough, because of a car wreck -- and their damaged dynamics. What starts as swoony romantic love is gradually revealed as the destructive dovetailing of their willed delusions and personal demons, particularly the psychological wreckage of their parents' marriages.

The alternating chapters allow us to see Jodi from Todd's point of view and vice versa. "Biologically, men are predators," Jodi suggests, while Todd tends to view women as grasping opportunists: "All women like money. Any woman will give in to you if you spend enough money on her."

Clearly, these characters aren't meant to be likable. But they are understandable, and Harrison's cool, distanced take on them is, weirdly, part of the fun.

Though there are last-act pacing problems, The Silent Wife is a clever dissection of a seemingly civilized marriage, the surfaces pulled back to expose its lethal core.

Sadly, Harrison died of cancer at age 65 before the book's publication, which is a loss to readers. If her first novel is this assured, who knows what might have come next?

Alison Gillmor writes on pop culture for the Winnipeg Free Press.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 20, 2013 A1

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