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The Perkins Star Shines Again

Novel About My Wife, by Emily Perkins
Bloomsbury, $35. Reviewed by JANE BLAIKIE

0747595607.jpgKiwi celebrity writer Emily Perkins is back with a hot new story – very contemporary, on an old theme. Novel About My Wife is just that. Tom Stone, a London sceenwriter recalls the last years of his marriage to Ann, an Australian-born sculptor.

The action sits on a nexus of art, alcohol, love and madness – being a scenario that could go by any number of names: the creative life, self-destruction, abuse, the female as muse, addiction, a conflicted anima, and so on.

The theme’s probably been around since Adam, or for that matter Eve, discovered the windfall apples had fermented. Set that story in contemporary London and it’s all sped up and coloured by the hellish cost of housing, credit cards, cheap air travel, mobile phones, cancer, crime and an uneasy mix of class (based on money), culture and race. The result: a rollercoaster of a novel.

The opening chapters feel slightly bumpy, as if the traumatized Tom is using a hand-held camera to shoot the scenes, but once you’re committed to the characters, it’s a page turner.
Relative to Emily Perkins’ two earlier novels, Leave Before You Go and The New Girl, it’s possible to really care about these characters and their friends – perhaps because Tom does want his marriage to work, because there is a baby, because together Tom and Ann don’t want all that much: work, a house, a kid, sex, friends – and it all begins to spiral away.

Emily Perkins’ gift that sparkled through her first book, the hugely successful collection of short stories Not Her Real Name, returns with tragic-comic perspicacity.

She’s an acute recorder of social manners; a wit, with a sharp eye for the arresting detail. And like Jane Austen, to whom she’s been compared, Perkins keeps the canvas focused within the domestic drama.

In this case, it’s essentially the hot houses of London screenwriters, and this creates a bit of a challenge for the reader: Perkins is writing about a sceenwriter writing a novel from his own point-of-view as a screenwriter.

What works with Jane Austen, English country life, is mildly claustrophobic in Perkins’ London world. That said, Novel About My Wife may just need time before we can look back at the start of the century with any degree of nostalgia.

In the meantime, pressing in at the edge of consciousness are questions about art imitating life, particularly in terms of psychological truth (Perkins is married to the painter Karl Maughan and they lived in London), and how to interpret the story in the light of Freud, Jung, feminism and alcoholics anonymous. But perhaps these questions are academic, and it’s better to simply look through this window Emily Perkins has opened – and let your heart race.

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Jane Blaikie is a Wellington writer and reviewer