Judith Flanders

Lurking beneath the surface

One’s past life is, usually, comfortably past.

Lurking beneath  the surface
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Tony and Susan

Austin Wright

Atlantic, pp. 352, £

One’s past life is, usually, comfortably past.

One’s past life is, usually, comfortably past. Susan Morrow’s first husband, Edward, is so firmly in her past that his second wife even sends her Christmas cards, signed ‘love’. Apart from that once-a-year token, she hasn’t heard from Edward in two decades. Their early marriage had been brief, and at cross-purposes: she had wanted a conventional bourgeois life, while he wanted to write — worse, he wanted to be a writer.

Now, out of her past, comes a novel from Edward, with a note saying ‘Damn! but this book is good.’ But it’s still missing something, he fears, and he asks his long-ex-wife to read it, and tell him what.

Most of Tony and Susan is taken up with Susan’s — and our — reading of Edward’s manuscript, Nocturnal Animals, a story of highway abduction, rape and revenge, a vicious, fast-paced thriller that bursts into Susan’s superficially contented life, in the gaps between teaching adult education, her heart-surgeon husband’s trip to a medical convention (combined with a possible affair) and the daily routine of cooking, housekeeping and child-rearing.

For the rest of the time, Susan becomes involved with the fictional Tony, a maths professor who is driving his wife and adolescent daughter up to their summer cottage in Maine. Leaving late, they decide to drive all night, a fatal decision: they are forced off the road by three men — whether drunken good ol’ boys or more dangerous hoods, is initially uncertain — who first run a line in obscurely threatening badinage, then separate Tony from his family, abducting his wife and daughter.

Nocturnal Animals follows the story of Tony, whose absent, ineffectual professional persona has seemingly given this trio licence to take their initially aggressive playfulness to a shockingly horrifying, yet inevitable, end for the women. Tony’s journey through grief and anger, to revenge and equal aggression, are tautly and suspensefully played out. Yet throughout, there is the counterpoint of Susan, the reader, whose responses we also follow.

Austin Wright is as concerned with the action of reading as he is with the action of action. Susan wonders at the start why Edward has sent her his Nocturnal Animals, and her own readers follow along in her wonder. What is the never-seen Edward, conjured up only through the double-distance of Susan’s memory, trying to tell her? And why now? The fears that Susan encounters on the page have mirrors in her own fears for the unknown that lurks beneath her suburban domesticity.

Yet this is far more schematic (and boring sounding) than the reality of Wright’s aggressive, nuanced and febrile novel. In the guise of a thriller, in these two intertwined stories Wright explores where our minds go when we read, how we create the reality on the page as much as we create the reality in our lives and in our memories. Tony was never alive; Edward never appears to Susan or to her readers; and yet Wright has made them as vivid to us as to Susan, and in doing so he highlights as remarkable these routine, quotidian actions: reading, thinking and remembering.

Judith Flanders’ books include The Victorian House and Consuming Passions.