Jodi and Todd have been together for 20 years and, on the surface, seem to have an enviable lifestyle. She has her own practice as a psychotherapist; he is a successful property developer. Jodi still feels a sense of anticipation when she hears his key in the door of their swish lakeside apartment; Todd says he has never met another woman who comes close to matching her. But there is a worm in the shiny apple of their relationship. Todd is a serial adulterer and Jodi knows it. She is the silent wife prepared to tolerate his philandering to keep things together. But the situation changes when Todd decides to leave Jodi for a girl half his age. At first she doesn’t believe it, but after being increasingly hurt and humiliated she begins to contemplate murder as a justifiable option, something which is signposted at the very start of the novel. This stylish, page-turning psychological thriller brilliantly anatomises the disintegration of a relationship built on compromise – not a whodunnit, but a why- and a howdunnit.
Just two months before The Silent Wife was published earlier this year, Susan Harrison died from ovarian cancer at the age of 65. She had written a number of non-fiction books, but this was her debut novel. Although she never had the thrill of seeing the book on sale, nor the huge international success it has achieved, she was aware of pre-publication endorsements from writers such as Kate Atkinson and Elizabeth George. ‘There is sadness about missing what is about to happen with the launch of her novel,’ said her husband, visual artist John Massey, at the time of her death. ‘But she did see its success in terms of the numerous countries that bought publishing rights.’
Susan Harrison was born in 1948, the daughter of Douglas Harrison, a chemical engineer, and Angela Harrison, who worked in photographic studios. She was raised in a suburb of Toronto before leaving home at 18 to attend art school. She left after two years and subsequently did a number of jobs, including performance artist, printer, writer and editor. She also pursued serious interests in yoga, meditation animal rights, and psychology, which she used to great effect in The Silent Wife. She and her husband lived in Toronto.
1. Why does Jodi tolerate Todd’s affairs? Is she sensible to do so?
2. Is Todd immoral or just irresponsible and immature?
3. How much is each to blame for what happens?
4. If Natasha hadn’t become pregnant, would the outcome have been different?
5. The story is told through the alternating viewpoints of Jodi and Todd. How successful is this approach? What does it add?
6. How influential is the upbringing of Jodi and Todd on their adult behaviour?
7. Jodi refuses to treat problematic patients or confront Todd. Is there a connection between the two?
8. It’s easy to dislike Todd, but what are your feelings about Jodi? Is she justified in what she does?
9. ‘Women like to believe that their men are nicer than they actually are,’ says Jodi. Do you agree?
10. Psychology plays a big role in the novel. What effect does this have?
I actually have no memory of getting the idea for this novel. Things build up in your subconscious and gradually break through. But I’ve always loved the TV series Columbo starring Peter Falk in which you get to watch the crime as it happens. As a reader, there’s something very psychologically satisfying about sharing the killer’s secret, about knowing what the other characters don’t know, about being in on the killer’s motives and frame of mind and having the opportunity to identify and even bond with the killer. We see the murder coming and we see the murder executed; it’s the inverse of the whodunnit, meaning the story doesn’t play out as a guessing game, and because of this, because of the transparency, there’s a focus on character and motivation and a sense of the characters forging their destinies. In that sense it’s realism, a study of two people at the limits of their ability to cope.
My background includes a book of essays on striptease that I co-wrote with performance artist and former stripper Margaret Dragu. She and I spent a lot of time in strip clubs in Montreal and Toronto and interviewed the people who worked there. In creating protagonist Jodi’s friend Alison, who works in a strip club as a server, I was pleased to have this authoritative first-hand knowledge to draw on.
I also came fairly well equipped to write about psychology, which has been a hobby for many years. Reading, attending lectures, getting shrunk myself, and writing a book of case studies for a psychotherapist friend have all helped with my education. Psychology is at the heart of The Silent Wife, and this includes eavesdropping on various characters’ psychotherapy sessions, something many people like to do, it seems. Our own psychotherapy can be painful, but someone else’s psychotherapy makes for entertainment.
Marriage is deeply psychological in that it draws out our basic needs and fears, plays on our ideals and expectations. Here, we see this in action on that intense daily basis that is marriage’s playing field, and we see it equally from both points of view, and again this is realism. It's a representation of everyday life: the boredom and repetition, the stifling sameness, and also, paradoxically, the urgency and momentousness, the precious seconds ticking by. This is portrayed in the context of these two privileged people: how important their pleasures, their attachment to a way of life; how numerous their blind spots and hypocrisies; how familiar the divide between alienation and belonging.