By Suzanne Leal
Publisher: Allen & Unwin/2023
Raised by her severe parents in a punitive and authoritarian church, Ellen’s narrow world is upended when she meets Gordon, a fellow teacher. Responding to his interest with curiosity and, before long, pleasure, Ellen is both transformed and beguiled by the connection, love and laughter he brings into her life.
Three years later, a knock on the door changes everything. Two police officers have come to accuse Gordon of a shocking crime. Abandoned and reviled by those around her, Ellen steadfastly refuses to believe Gordon has done anything wrong. In a world of swirling suspicion, however, she will have to fight to protect him.
But what will that cost her? And what will she discover about him along the way?
Reviewer: Lidia Kathrine
A great page turning read that had me riveted from the very beginning.
The Watchful Wife tells the story of Ellen Wells, who is forced to question everything she knows about her husband Gordon and what he is capable of. Suzanne Leal focuses on Ellen and her childhood, and how the trauma she experienced growing up went on to shape many of the decisions she would make as an adult. Whilst the opening chapter deals with the police coming to question Gordon about his relationship with a female student, the story then goes back to Ellen’s childhood and examines how life has led her to the current situation through her choices, both voluntarily and involuntarily.
We learn that Ellen’s childhood is dictated by the religious teachings of the Free Church, which consumes her life, and the beliefs her parents instil in her. It is through her Sabbath School Teacher, Miss Habler, that Ellen experiences the freedom and adventure books can offer, and the various worlds she can escape to, when she is gifted a copy of Anne of Green Gables. The kindness of teachers towards Ellen continues when she is in High School as the librarian, Miss Bell, opens up more of the literary world to her, and Mrs Serasinghe comes to Ellen’s rescue after an unfortunate incident during PE class.
It is those teachers who influence Ellen’s decision to become an English teacher herself. In fact, the influence of teachers and their importance is a key theme that Leal explores. The relationship between Gordon and his student Laetitia, and what happened one day after school, unravels Ellen’s world and forces her to question everything that she believes in. Throughout The Watchful Wife, the reader might question whether or not Ellen is being naïve in believing in her husband. When Leal delves into the courtship and relationship between Ellen and Gordon, he takes on an almost saviour role in Ellen’s life, as he offers her a world that she never believed she would have. I was urging Ellen to lean on and rely on herself for the first time, to reinvent herself into the person that she truly is and find that strength she never knew existed within her.
Against this backdrop, Leal expertly examines not only the student/teacher relationship, but also the devastating impact of emotional and psychological abuse. Not only in Ellen’s parents treatment of her, but their response to her desire to have a job and independence away from them; her first attempt at reinvention. Other themes which are explored are the role and power religion can play, complex family dynamics and how they can shape us, and unyielding belief in the ones we love. A thoroughly enjoyable read and excellent use of imagery, characterisation and narrative style and technique from Leal.