"The Loving Husband" Christobel Kent
The novel opens with the shocking discovery of Nathan's body and then we watch the subsequent events unfolding over the period of a week as the police open an investigation placing Fran as their main suspect. Through Fran's flashbacks and glimpses of old memories, the reader has to piece together the real truth behind this marriage and the real truth behind Nathan's death.
Although engaging, I wouldn't describe it as the straightforward racy, vivd thriller, full of cliffhangers that usually defines this genre. Fran is suffering from so much anxiety, confusion and some kind of post natal depression that the events and recollections are like a jagged jigsaw which has lost several vital pieces. It was a page turner, but in the sense that I was keen to muddle through the chaos of Fran's thoughts and wanted to see if Kent's final resolution matched my deductions.
Fran is an intriguing protagonist. It is hard to know whether to feel sympathy towards her because of her propensity to be a victim or stand in judgement towards her because of some of the decision she has made. It is also impossible to work out how reliable and truthful she is. I always like an unreliable narrator and her reluctance to admit what it is she is frightened of despite the continuous needling from the police is cleverly managed to maximise the suspense. It is also effective in creating a conflicting opinion of Nathan and the secrets he may have been hiding. Kent taunts us with Fran's haunting fear - so many times we get so close to finding out what secrets Fran harbours and why she is so frightened but just as Fran's memory cuts out, so too does the reader's hope of any easy answers. I did find Fran a confusing character to relate to as at times she appears quite unhinged or too weak but by the end of the novel I completely understood what Kent had set out to achieve and how effectively she had done this.
The relationship between Fran and Nathan is complex and we are shown such different versions of their marriage that for a long time it is unclear why other people like Jo, Fran's best friend, dislike him so much or are suspicious of him. Nathan seems loving, considerate, kind and thoughtful but as the novel progresses there is something which irked me about their relationship. There is a sense of distance and almost disinterest from Nathan despite his need to control everything, but conversely Fran recounts tales of when he has done nothing but spoil and care for her. The real issues seem connected with the arrival of their young family. Fran clearly longed for a baby and there is a sense that the couple had some kind of unspoken agreement or understanding about this. The marriage is strange. There is something unnatural about it. And it becomes quite menacing as Fran reveals more about their sudden move away, isolation and the restrictions Nathan puts upon her: "she had always had the sense too that he wanted her in sight, somehow, even if he wasn't there he wanted her in the house. He just wanted to know where she was."
But then isn't that how marriage should appear to the outsider? A mystery to everyone except the couple themselves? As they say, no one ever really knows what goes on behind closed doors....... Even Fran herself thinks there is nothing worrying or peculiar about the way Nathan behaves as she says, "You work it out, don't you? What marriage is all about."
The police openly suspect Fran which challenges the reader to consider the reliability of what she tells us, but as a character who is so vulnerable and fragile, it is impossible to think that she really could be capable of murder. A few times I was a little irritated by Fran's hopelessness but I think this is deliberate to enhance the more menacing aspect of the marriage. The police officers are also quite bullying in their handling of the case - in fact I don't think there are any likeable male characters in the book! The police officer running the case is intimidating and his clear suspicion of Fran from the outset also plays with the reader's mind. Several characters repeat sentences like "You need to be completely honest with us. You know that, don't you? It's the only way we can help you" which I think Kent uses to pull the reader in deeper- planting more seeds of doubt against the troubled, harassed, stressed Fran.
Fran's confusion is catching and the deep fog that engulfs her mind also permeates the readers'. So many times I couldn't guess which way the story was heading and what the truth might be. Kent also deliberately presents Fran as confused and suppressed to reflect how indebted she feels and how she is trying to play along with all Nathan's wishes as a kind of penance for what she is desperate to keep hidden from him. The hints and half finished phrases which pepper the pages with clues as to what she is actually guilty of, or what she is actually scared of revealing, are managed frustratingly well. It makes it impossible to put down!
I liked the way Kent manipulated the reader so you were never really sure how to respond to the main characters and whether they were victims or villains. She keeps her cards tight to her chest which in turn creates tension and suspense until literally the last page.
This was an engaging and intelligent read, Kent is an able writer with quite a literary style. At times, because of the number of different characters, threads and overall evocation of confusion and lost memories, it required a little more effort but the extra concentration pays off!
I think "The Loving Husband" is like S J Watson's "Before you go to Sleep" in the sense that a character is trying to work out through the fog to find out what is happening. Fran's mixture of confusion, fear or self deception means information is withheld from the reader without either character or reader realising. As with "Before you go to Sleep" there is a sense of urgency as the reader faces the challenge of trying to sort out the snippets of memory into a coherent narrative. Kent uses some of the techniques seen in "Gone Girl" - characters are suddenly shown to be something they are not and both have shocking denouements that throw all of what the protagonist ever knew into question.
My thanks to NetGalley for a copy of this novel in return for an honest review.
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