“We’re all fucked up, every single one of us, I think.”
Warning: This post will contain spoilers.
Confession: While I enjoy a good psychological thriller once in a blue moon (there’s a reason I read this in October!), it’s not a genre that really floats my boat. And I typically hate unreliable narrators.
Bonus Confession: I have never read a single Tarryn Fisher book. Until now.
Last chance. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The Wives (2019) is about what you expect it to be – a psychological thriller with an unreliable female narrator whose mania and delusions are apparent rather early on.
Fisher’s writing is sharp and biting, with a quick pace that I find necessary for thrillers. In a world of Sister Wives and similar polygamist families gracing our screens on “reality” shows, I found the premise at once intriguing. The premise and writing made for a quick Saturday afternoon read.
Thursday is one of three wives. Her husband, Seth, is also married to Tuesday (his first wife) and Monday (his third wife who is currently pregnant). While the women know about each other, they have zero interaction; they don’t even know each other’s names.
But Thursday is an envious and curious creature. When she finds an invoice with a woman’s name on it, she realizes she’s uncovered Monday’s identity. Let the stalking commence. After being able to glean much from social media, she goes to the house at the address on the invoice. In a moment that would require you suspend your disbelief, Monday (who is really Hannah) invites Thursday into her home. They become friends. Hannah expresses concerns about her marriage and her husband’s temper, and Thursday sees the bruises on the woman’s arm and face.
Thursday becomes consumed by Hannah, and the intense satisfaction of knowing about that part of Seth’s world is so addictive that she seeks out Tuesday (who is really Regina, an attorney). She attempts to book a consult with her, but it can’t be scheduled for three weeks. Accordingly, Thursday does as any warm-blooded woman would do and creates a fake dating profile to catfish her husband’s other wife.
The story Thursday would have you believe is that Seth is from a polygamist family. That Regina didn’t want children, but he did. That he brought Thursday into the mix to grow his family. That she lost their baby quite heartbreakingly and had a medically required hysterectomy. And he’d married Hannah, who was pregnant with the child Regina didn’t want to give him and Thursday hadn’t been able to give him.
This is the lie peppered in truths that consumes her entire existence, and the reader realizes rather quickly that Thursday isn’t reliable. As her mania spirals and the delusions are exposed, I felt a twinge of disappointment; mental health shouldn’t be a cheap plot device, especially a break from reality for which the catalyst was a tragic miscarriage in the second trimester. But there are ways it can be done and done well.
Where I think Fisher has elevated her use of the device is in the unreliability and unfaithfulness of Seth and in the unreliability and bitterness of Regina; both intentionally fed Thursday’s delusions and both suffered for how they intentionally manipulated an “unwell” woman.
The Yellow Wallpaper” is a prime example of how mental health can be used as a plot device that doesn’t feel cheap. While not a novel and more gothic than thriller, it depicts the “hysterics” of a woman gone mad following giving birth. (I’m of the opinion the baby died, ‘Mary’ is the Virgin Mary, and the postpartum combined with grief birthed the madness in the nursery that had been meant for the baby. But that’s a discussion for another time.) The point is this isn’t a new or novel; the “madness” of women was a common theme in early literature, and it continues to be. Only now, the “mad” women are out for blood.