Review by Annabel
I recently read J P Delaney’s first psychological thriller, The Girl Before, (which Harriet reviewed here) in advance of a crime panel event he was speaking at. The event was excellent and JP was fascinating to listen to talking about his second novel Believe Me, which was inspired by a real event. I’ve yet to read that book, but The Girl Before was terrific, not only in the sustained suspense in the complex, claustrophobic and twisty plot, but also in the depth of characterisation of the main characters, something which is often missing from thrillers. Delaney is a pseudonym for an author who has written in several different styles using various pen-names over the years – it turns out I’ve read some of them – but I shall preserve his anonymity here.
Turning our attention to his third psychological thriller, The Perfect Wife, with that tantalising tag line, “Marry. Die. Repeat.” on the cover, Delaney has created another compulsive and page-turning novel, this time set amongst the high-tech companies of Silicon Valley. However, the book starts with a familiar scenario: a woman wakes up to find a relieved husband. Had she been in a coma, or operated upon? Was she just dreaming? A few pages later, it deviates from the trope with a killer statement:
Tim seems to come to a decision.
‘There’s something I have to explain, my love,’ he says, taking your hand in his. ‘Something very difficult, but you need to know right away. That wasn’t a dream. It was an upload.’
Tim is a tech entrepreneur, co-founder of a robotics company, and an enfant terrible in the industry whom everyone wants to work for, however difficult he can be. He was married to an free-spirited artist, Abbie, whom he fell for when she was artist in residence at Scott Robotics. One day, Abbie, an experienced surfer, went missing …
So Tim built himself a replacement – a ‘cobot’ – a ‘companion robot’. The new Abbie who is brought to life five years later has the capacity to think and she has many of Abbie’s memories. She looks like Abbie too as far as the synthetic skin covering allows, but she still needs plugging in to recharge at night. Her brain, however, is a significant advance in artificial intelligence – to all intensive purposes she is Abbie, but with a selected-by-Tim memory.
With recent novels such as Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me and Winterson’s Frankissstein making the headlines, this is the year that AI in literature has gone mainstream. Of course, it has long been a staple of SF, on the page, big and small screens, but normalising it into non-SF settings, as Alexa is taking over our homes (never in mine!), as Edith’s character in the excellent family TV drama Years and Years was uploaded into the cloud when she was dying, raise the question over whether we need bodies in order to exist as never before.
The same questions apply in The Perfect Wife, even though we’re in thriller territory. What Delaney goes on to do is rather clever, getting cobot Abbie to investigate the real Abbie’s disappearance and presumed death, thus finding out more about herself as she goes.
Once cobot Abbie is established, Delaney starts to add in sections from before, showing what happened with the real Abbie, alternating the timelines, but not as formally as in The Girl Before where they switched strictly chapter by chapter. This time, the before sections are told from the PoV of Scott Robotics’ employees, observing the dance between Tim and Abbie like a Greek chorus in the third person plural. It’s a most effective device, and you can tell whose side they’re on.
The majority of the story is, however, told from the robot Abbie’s PoV, but unusually, mostly in the second person – as you and your – which makes you wonder if she thinks she’s seeing herself through the original Abbie’s eyes perhaps. She really gains the reader’s sympathy, particularly as she appears to begin to love her ‘husband’ although she does question. The grief-stricken Tim’s motives are naturally questionable from the start, especially once robot Abbie learns what happened to her predecessor. As in The Girl Before, Delaney’s main male character is an absolute control freak, but Tim plays mind games to a different level, seeking to control everyone and everything.
Things are made more difficult by the presence of Tim and Abbie’s severely autistic son, Danny, who was five when she disappeared. Now ten, Danny comes alive off the page. His autism is degenerative, he is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, which is often the only way to get him to communicate, and he is subjected to some aggressive behaviour therapies by his live-in carer. Danny makes an interesting counterpoint to robot Abbie’s growing awareness, as his own closes in. Delaney is writing from experience here, having an autistic child, as he writes in the afterword.
As we read on, the plot increases in complexity towards a totally unexpected ending which had me reeling, but I was completely carried along by it. Upon reflection, with its techie rather than SF setting, I felt we had to suspend our disbelief to accept robot Abbie’s emotional development just a little too far, but that didn’t stop my enjoyment of reading this cracking thriller with interesting things to say about identity. Delaney’s expert use of psychology to create fascinating and unreliable characters, his ability to manipulate his readers (in a good way!) combined with good writing makes this a must-read thriller for the summer!
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and also blogs at AnnaBookBel.
J P Delaney, The Perfect Wife (Quercus, 2019). 978-1786488527, 352pp, hardback.BUY the pbk at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)