I have an internal checklist when I’m reading a thriller. Unreliable narrator. Check. Mysterious past. Check. People behaving badly. Check. Big lies, little lies. Check. Atmospheric setting and/or creepy or ostentatious house. Check. Hints that maybe the “great’’ guy isn’t as good as anyone wants to believe. Check.
Kira is our narrator, and this young woman is this close to getting everything she ever wanted: a wealthy, handsome (albeit older) husband, named Aaron. She has an adorable baby, a fiancé, a sullen teenaged almost-stepdaughter named Olive from Aaron’s first marriage, and a beautiful luxury home.
I don’t love the idea that a woman desperately wants to marry an older, wealthy husband—it hurts my feminist brain—but Kira’s reasons help readers empathize with why she wants comfort and a safe harbour in her life. Despite her mercenary approach to her life choices, Kira displays naivety, which reminds the reader she’s still a very young woman.
The Almost Wife is a thriller, so readers can expect things to go from serene and comfortable to absolute chaos in a couple of pages.
Kira’s big problem? Madison, Aaron’s second ex-wife. If you’re a frequent reader of domestic thrillers, your alarm bells are already going off. This is what makes thrillers so devourable. The reader is already primed to jump at shadows and be suspicious of everybody—which is a valid response in The Almost Wife. Secrets abound and everyone is desperate to protect theirs.
Madison is trying to steal Olive, and turn her against Aaron. It’s working. After a physical confrontation with Madison while Aaron is away, Kira packs up both children and flees to the remote Manitoulin Island (where there is almost no cellphone service—another thriller staple). Madison, not to be dissuaded from her mission to reconnect with Olive, follows her and the chase is on.
The descriptions of Manitoulin Island are alternatively idyllic and menacing. The wilderness provides a darkly oppressive atmosphere, both for Kira’s past (which comes to the forefront with a vengeance once she’s on the island) and for her fight for her future.
The Almost Wife is a new turn for the twice Scotiabank Giller Prize-nominated Anderson-Dargatz—it’s her first thriller. She nails it.
Alli Vail is a content producer and writer living in Vancouver. She works with the Whistler Writers Festival.
Gail Anderson-Dargatz reads at the Thrills, Chills and Authors Who Kill: A Murder Mystery and Discussion with Five Thriller Writers event on Oct. 16 at 1:15 p.m. and leads the From Literary Novel to Thriller: Crossing Genres to Add New Life to Your Craft workshop on Oct. 16 at 11 a.m. For tickets, visit whistlerwritersfest.com.