The Woman in Our House is one of those thrillers which are to literature what Five Guys is to food. It’s a notch upscale from McDonald’s, so you kid yourself it’s not that bad for you, all the while knowing it’s really just junk. The reading experience is hurried, even furtive. Just as you keep on eating fries because they’re there in front of you, you can’t stop reading, impatient to get to the end. The pleasure is in part because you know it’s trashy, but it definitely is pleasurable. In the moment, it seems like exactly what you need. The problem only comes upon reflection. I never want a salad as much as when I’ve just finished a burger, and after tearing through a book I know I won’t remember in two weeks I always resolve to read more Proust.
The protagonist of TWIOUH, Anna, feels burnt out and bored by life as a stay at home parent to her two small children. She tells her husband she wants to go back to work as a literary agent, and hires a live-in nanny. The reader knows before Anna even meets the nanny that she is in fact an imposter, rather than the woman with the sterling references Anna thinks she’s hiring.
My opinion of this book depreciated steadily in the hours after I finished it, as I had more time to reflect on all its absurdities. Even while reading, there were several things which niggled at me. The book is told through alternate viewpoints – which was actually a bit pointless and did little to add tension – but these switch between first person for the main character and third person for the other characters, which felt rather jarring. Why not all first person, since the chapter is headed with each character’s name? Or a close third person narrative throughout? Most egregious of all, at one point the narration mistakenly jumped between the two perspectives, within a few lines on a single page. If this had been some kind of avant-garde experiment in representing Anna’s dissociation from her own life I could probably have handled it, but no, it was just an unforgivable error.
I was hoping for more of a sense of looming menace from this book – on the hired help scale from Mary Poppins to Mrs Danvers, the fake nanny here felt disappointingly tame. Probably best not to analyse the reasons why too deeply, but I really wanted Anna’s kids to feel at serious risk, which they didn’t much, up until the climax. That ending was another big issue I had with the book; it was dependent on a vague neo-Nazi subplot, which felt shoe-horned in as a ready motivation for the true villain, who was little more than a cartoon character.
There was another subplot centred around Anna’s husband’s job, which was so boring and irrelevant I’ve already forgotten the details. Disappointingly, the book focussed on this rather than on plot threads which I did want to read about. I would have loved more about Anna’s inner conflict between her identity as a mother and as a person. As race eventually became a thematic concern in the book, it would have been interesting for this to have been explored more throughout and for Anna’s sense of displacement in this predominantly white enclave to have been developed, alongside her growing sense of displacement in her children’s lives.
I did come to the realisation while reading that I have developed some sort of parental Stockholm syndrome. Such is my fixation with the small dictator who rules my own life, that I kept feeling frustrated that the children weren’t more central characters in this book. I appreciate that this is more symptomatic of the current paucity of my own interests and worldview rather than any actual fault of the book, but I did spend most of it wondering what the baby was thinking about it all. I was both annoyed and highly sceptical about the fact that this baby slept through almost the entire plot, aside from one scene where she conveniently exhibited some highly precocious speech. Note to the author: this is not a typical nine month old, and certainly not a fussy one as per your description. This is not the way you win over parents!
I know this review makes it sound as if I hated this book, and I really didn’t. I actually enjoyed it quite a bit whilst actually reading it, and initially rated it four stars, before eventually downgrading this to two. However, if you want something quick to read on the beach, you could do a lot worse. Just don’t expect to feel good about it the next day.