Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Wife and the Widow.
In The Wife and the Widow, author Christian White pulls off no easy feat, pushing readers into a psychologically tense space where walls close in. The novel opens moodily, with an image bathed in midnight blue depicting a man lying in bed, suddenly confronted with a bald-headed stranger. When it comes to skeletons in the closet, White's focus is on Kate Keddie, who waits patiently in the arrivals lounge at Melbourne International Airport for her husband, John, who is returning from a medical conference in London. Kate is a hesitant mother who feels more comfortable with "John's backup." The last time they spoke was over Skype on the morning John's flight was due to leave. At the time, Kate was struck with an odd sense of paranoia and an impression that John wasn't alone.
White's time-twisting dual narrative pivots between Kate's search for John and Abby Gilpin, who lives on isolated Belport Island. It's obvious that Abby has secrets as well, as does her diffident, distracted husband, Ray. Content to find solace in her taxidermy hobby, Abby has remained in Belport, an island that has a way of drawing you in and holding you down. Abby learned a long time ago that it's easier to lean into Belport's seductive tendencies than to struggle against it.
White challenges the dichotomy between Abby and Kate. Kate thinks it's starting to feel less like they're talking about her husband and more about a stranger. She needs to know why John resigned from his job at a palliative care center and why he kept it from her. After the death of John's beloved patient, Annabel, he became distant and cold. Why would John mourn the loss of a woman Kate never knew existed?
At the core of The Wife and the Widow is the eventual confrontation between Kate and Abby, a clash that grows after Kate travels to Belport to find John and drag him home. She'll worry about the shattered remains of their marriage later. Kate never imagined that John could have been dragged to Belport against his will. It suggests another reality: that he had kept his secret trip hidden from her, maybe forever.
For the drama to work, it is crucial that we feel both drawn to and pushed away from Abby, that we empathize with her while being unsure whether she can be trusted. What exactly is Abby hiding? Is there something more going on? Events take a dark turn with the discovery of a dead body on Beech Tree Landing, the deserted local ferry terminal: "A person died. If you have something to hide you have something to protect, and if you have something to protect, you have something to kill for." The wintry territory of Belport has layers of secrecy, hidden truths and secret doors--and Abby's years on the island have earned her access to a great many of these secret doors.
It's the psychological truths--in the characterizations, the relationships between Abby, Kate, John and reclusive Ray--that lift White's shifting, opaque novel well beyond the level of most crime fiction. Kate has spent her marriage looking at John through a keyhole. Now she's catching a glimpse of what might lay beyond the door. Through ate and Abby, White posits the question: How well can you ever really know anyone?