Book Review: “A Perfect Marriage” by Alison Booth (@booth_alison @RedDoorBooks @noblewordscomms @AusWomenWriters #AWW2018)

 

It took me a while to write a review for Alison Booth’s A Perfect Marriage (RedDoor, 2018), because I really want to discuss the book’s structure.

A Perfect Marriage is not the first book to give us the present and the past of a story side-by-side. However, it is the first in my (relatively limited) reading experience that introduces events of the present chronologically while showcasing those of the past in reverse order. The result is a curious sense of disorientation, before the story grabs me with its steady revelation of the protagonist’s hidden scars.

I have to applaud Booth’s decision to approach issues of domestic violence with such an unusual narrative structure. As more physical, emotional and psychological trauma is disclosed about the protagonist’s long-ago marriage, our expectation of a “showdown” gradually builds up, until we reach the “crescendo”, the ultimate collision between the past and the present and its consequences on all involved. As a reader, I sense that this is a reasonable approach, akin to how one’s memories tend to work when all one wants is to escape the past. The more one wants to embrace the “perfect” present, the more menacing and haunting the past becomes, refusing to be silenced and/or stopped.

So it comes down to how efficiently and effectively the story is told, and whether it can successfully convince readers that all the characters are responding to events around them in a logical and coherent way. Some may argue that issues of domestic violence are not and cannot be assumed as rational, as in most cases in reality we are faced with irrational and irregular behaviours, blinding fury and fear, as well as fierce frustration, doubt and denial. I agree. Yet, I would suggest that in fiction, a story can only be “real” when it is able to make us suspend our disbelief.

In A Perfect Marriage, Booth is perhaps trying to provide an answer to the most commonly raised question: “If she was assaulted so badly and so frequently, why didn’t she leave him?” As a reader, I sense that Booth’s answer is satisfying enough, and we need to keep in mind that it is only one of the many possible answers to be found as we continue to promote public awareness of and action to combat domestic violence as well as violence against women. However, in this case, due to the book’s unusual narrative structure, we see the protagonist first as highly intelligent and successful career woman. It is only much later that we get a glimpse of her as a young woman so blindly in love that she failed to consider or chose to ignore the practical side of marriage. Does this hinder the author’s attempt to explain why her protagonist remained in an unhappy relationship for so long? Or does this support the confirmed finding that domestic violence can happen to anyone, whatever their background, age and life experiences?

There is some inconsistency in the author’s depiction of Sally Lachlan as a character, and I am not convinced this is due to readers having to constantly switch between the Sally as a distinguished geneticist and the Sally as a deeply traumatised and emotionally vulnerable woman. With that said, I commend Booth’s attempt to shed light on the complex and delicate issue about domestic violence that is the emotional and psychological transformation of the assaulted, i.e. how they have come to accept or reject the MISCONCEPTION that they are at fault, that they are the victim for a reason. Here is a quote from Sally that all sides of relevant discussions/debates should heed:

“At this point I realise something; something so obvious I wonder how it could have taken so long. Although marrying Jeff was a mistake ex post, it was not a mistake ex ante. It wasn’t my fault the marriage went sour; it was something that couldn’t have been predicted beforehand. I wasn’t to blame for his violence either; that was the way he was. I hadn’t picked badly because I couldn’t have known beforehand about this. So I didn’t deserve to be punished for my choice.” (p.211)

More details about Alison Booth’s A Perfect Marriage can be found here.

 

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