My husband’s disappeared. He got in from work, propped his briefcase against the wall and asked me if I’d bought any bread. It must have been around half past seven.
My Phantom Husband by Marie Darrieussecq was published in France as Naissance des fantômes in 1998 and in English, translated by Helen Stevenson, in 1999. The narrator’s husband has returned from work and then nipped out to get some bread from the local shop only to disappear.The above quotation is the opening paragraph of the novel and it’s the type of opening for a novel that pulls me in, there’s no messing about and we’re straight into the story. The narrator in Darrieussecq’s novel recounts how she was on the phone to her mother while leaning against the window waiting for her husband to return. Straight away she suspects that something is wrong as her husband is the type of person who would call if he’d met up with friends and was having a drink. If he was having an affair he would be secretive and discreet. She phones her friend, Jacqueline, to see if she knows anything about his whereabouts and then ends up trying to follow her husband’s route to the local bakeries that he may have gone to—but to no avail. She phones her mother-in-law to see if she has any news and the following day contacts the police who are, of course, not interested as they have hundreds of people disappearing every day.
Having already read Darrieussecq’s first novel, Pig Tales, about a woman who turns into a pig, I wasn’t expecting a realist novel and it is not long before the narrative becomes more dreamlike. Looking out the window she thinks she sees her husband:
It was raining now, a fine drizzle that made everything steam and gleam. Every wall fragmented into its constituent parts, the roofs shivered darkly, insects crystallized in the mist. Then I saw my husband coming back, his easy almost bandy-legged stride, his coat, his hunched shoulders, his tall silhouette. I ran down the stairs and out on to the deserted street.
Only, it’s not her husband. As the novel progresses the narrator seems even more fragile and isolated; she has contact with her bossy friend Jacqueline, her domineering mother and her fragile mother-in-law but any type of normal interaction between herself and these people is difficult as reality becomes more elusive. She misses her husband’s rather dull solidity (‘my husband’s big slumbering body always seemed the most mysteriously simple, familiar and real thing in the world’) but when she now looks at her wedding photographs his image either seems to be blurred, out of focus or he’s turned away from the camera.
The narrative fluctuates between reality and a dreamlike state for the rest of the novel; the narrator visits her mother-in-law, visits her husband’s workplace where she continues running his business in his absence and she goes for a walk along the seafront only to experience sea lion corpses to be washed up on the beach. I have read books before that portray a similar hallucinogenic reality, some work and some don’t, but Darrieussecq’s writing is superb throughout, mainly because her writing remains taut even when what she is describing is rather nebulous. Here is an example about half-way through the book.
It wasn’t night, it was simply darkness, with me in the middle hoping all the while that time was carrying on flowing, that something would crop up, me all alone in the middle, with my veins and my muscles dissolving rapidly into nothingness, me made of molecules of flesh and thought, dispersing in a cloud (a process of expansion as sudden as that of the room, a nebula of bedroom and me, between limits that grew dimmer by the moment).
The novel ends with the narrator attending a dinner party in honour of her mother who’s intending to move abroad. Her mother’s ostentatious dress reminds the narrator of the iridescence of fish scales and makes her feel quite nauseous, so she has to go for a walk but the suburban environment now appears as if underwater.
The street seen backwards was like an invasion by the sea on the night of a flood. What I saw resembled an inside-out glove, the negative of a street. I was walking over the ocean bed, creeping along the walls, the corroded gateways, the mossy leprosy of cars, octopus-infested gardens, pines encrusted with vampire shells (sap drained, suppliant branches forming reefs); to navigate anywhere beyond this housing estate you’d have needed to be familiar with the shadows of the labyrinth, hearing the helm scraping the rooftops, the keel grating against the gutter rails. But my step was light, steady and brisk.
So, does her husband return or is it left unresolved? (You may wish to stop reading here if you really don’t want to know how the novel ends.) Well, both really; when the narrator returns to the party she sees her husband enter through the doorway although his form appears vague and nebulous. Her mother-in-law also sees him and faints. The novel ends with the narrator back in her flat, with her phantom husband, trying to decide how it’s going to work out.
This book will not be to everyone’s taste, and it’s the type of book that I have often ended up getting annoyed with because they can end up just being a stream of unconnected words and images. But Darrieussecq manages to maintain a sense of structure to the whole book and although there was hallucinogenic imagery it’s not totally at the expense of plot and character. It was an enjoyable read.