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Homegrown Books: The Doctor's Wife

Patricia Bell recommends The Doctor's Wife, by Fiona Sussman - Bateman Books, 2022


I sense it when I talk about murder mysteries and psychological thrillers written by New Zealand authors. I call it the Kiwi cultural cringe: the idea that New Zealand commercial (or genre) fiction is inferior.

Perhaps it’s something to do with New Zealand’s literary tradition still being in its infancy, relatively speaking. We can’t possibly keep up with the big guns. Can we?

I’m here to tell you we can, and that Fiona Sussman is one of the best.

Disclaimer: I know the author and I offered to review The Doctor’s Wife for her. But I know it would also be an opportunity for me to promote the exciting genre fiction that’s being produced in Aotearoa, and to urge you to read more of it.

The plot: there’s a doctor, and a wife, and their friends, and other colourful characters in a cast that is carefully curated, with back story and psychological insights woven through the narrative. There’s a death. And then it’s a race between this skillful author and her readers to see who can get to the truth first.

The plot, clever and well-paced, never overwhelms the characters. That’s a strength of Sussman’s work: she gifts us fully human, complicated, fleshed-out people. And it’s obvious she has real affection for her two detective protagonists in particular (of whom, she promised us at the launch, we haven’t seen the last).

The story is told in a series of third-person limited narrative blocks, key characters all taking their turns. The choice creates the immediacy and intimacy of a first-person narrative without the reader being "trapped inside" any one character’s head. Thus Sussman can keep us guessing: did she do it? Did he? Wait: Did they? Can we trust … anyone?

Another strength is the acutely accurate observations. Detective Hilary Stark ‘had a flat body, like a paper doll, and a skew blonde fringe.’ Can’t we immediately see her?

And here, a taut, precise description perfectly captures the menace contained within it:

‘Every minute detail of the scene registered on his retinas … the kidney-shaped sponge he kept for cleaning in the car, in her rubber-gloved hand. A dead moth upended on the windowsill. The cat backed into a corner.’

The reveal is handled adeptly, coming as it does at just the right moment: not too soon, not too late. And it’s drawn out: Sussman hints, then confirms, then explains, thus giving depth and heart to a resolution that could have been one-dimensional and formulaic.

But what will stick with me (and yes, you can tell I’m an editor who loves music) is the wordcraft. She plays her sentences with skill. There’s lyricism, and rhythm; the crack and slap of words, the perfect metaphor here, the just-right simile there.

The grief of an unwanted period coming after a round of IVF, for example, is encapsulated in a gently alliterated metaphor: ‘The fall somehow felt greater coming from the perch of a pharmaceutical promise’.

And the book’s very first sentence drops us right in the middle of the action with that muscular compound verb: ‘Eliot stopped, his breath whistle-sucking in his ears, his face thumping hot.’

Read it. And read more New Zealand genre fiction: crime, romance, mystery, thrillers.

We can only have a thriving culture of high-quality genre fiction in Aotearoa if readers get behind our excellent authors.

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