Stephanie Jones: Book Review - The Missing Wife by Sheila O’Flanagan

Publish Date
Thursday, 9 June 2016, 4:10PM
By Stephanie Jones

Vince Naughton may not be as physically violent as Martin Burney, the brutish husband played by Patrick Bergin in the 1991 Julia Roberts vehicle Sleeping with the Enemy, but he’s controlling, possessive, hypercritical and convinced of his own superiority. He tells his wife, Imogen, that she’s useless without him, that she needs no one but him – and then enforces her neediness by controlling the household accounts and doing his best to undermine her career.

Small wonder, then, that after five years of accelerating misery, Imogen leaves Vince, in the opening chapters of Sheila O’Flanagan’s The Missing Wife. The title, perfunctory yet accurate, nods to a matter-of-fact approach to story, which is less a marital drama – aside from a few conversational flashbacks, Imogen and Vince share a single brief scene – than a tale of one woman’s liberation.

Just like a prison break, the more time you can accrue on the outside before they notice you’ve gone, the better your chance of permanent escape, and Imogen smartly stages her flight during a business trip to Paris. Instead of returning to the Naughtons’ London home, she makes her way south from the French capital, taking public transport and paying with cash amassed from a work bonus concealed from her husband. She finally fetches up, long hair chopped short and maiden name of Weir reassumed, in Hendaye, south-west France.

Handily, the stories of her partly France-based girlhood, details of which are much belaboured by O’Flanagan, never much interested Vince, so his efforts to track her down run into a few roadblocks and take the bulk of the novel’s 470 pages to bear fruit. These days, social media is as useful a research tool as any, and Vince uses it to pester Imogen’s stepsister Cheyenne about what she knows. Offline he harangues Imogen’s former boss and enlists her friend Shona, the only pal he allowed his wife to have, to help him in the search and to learn more about two elderly aunts in Palm Springs.

Once he narrows down her location to France, he sets off in pursuit. It says much about Vince that his chief frustration in having to bring his wife home where she belongs, as he sees it, is cost – both in money expended and work missed. Throughout the novel there is not a skerrick of insight or internal reflection on his part, even as the rather dopey Shona’s eyes begin to open, and sharp Cheyenne, whose loyalties are firmly held, shuts him down.

O’Flanagan’s work is gentle, fluid and easily absorbed, satisfying whether read in a sitting or during a succession of tea breaks, and ideal for a long journey or a lazy afternoon. While there is inevitable contrivance in the discovery that leads Vince to Imogen, and the setting of her new life and reunion with old companions is presented as blissfully Gallic, there is a sombre, even caustic, undertone. Marian Keyes dived deeper into intimate-partner violence in This Charming Man, but O’Flanagan’s take is noteworthy for its reminder that emotional violence is no less corrosive than other forms.

Those who know the signs will recognize the scene of Vince and Imogen’s first meeting as a foretelling, and identify his careful restraint until after they return from their honeymoon as typical of an abuser: wait until you have it in the bag. The awful Martin Burney’s story ended with a bang; O’Flanagan’s happier version offers freedom, friends and a fresh start.

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