Reviewed: The Politician’s Husband on BBC2

Blond ambition.

The Politician’s Husband
BBC2

Wouldn’t it be great if TV baddies sometimes went into restaurants and ordered, say, a little bowl of miso with some steamed greens on the side? Alas, they never do. In The Politician’s Husband (25 April, 9pm), Paula Milne’s almost-reprise of her 1995 series, The Politician’s Wife, there is a baddie with the preposterous name of Bruce Babbish. Mr Babbish is a politician of uncertain hue – one’s party seems not to matter in this kind of series, a fact I find somewhat disorientating – and rather posh and bland to boot. But we know he is a baddie because at lunch he orders calves’ liver, rare, with a bottle of something expensive and red.

Crikey it’s weird, this series – and if we’re going to count the ways, we might as well start with David Tennant’s hair, which has been dyed blond so very inexpertly, I wondered if someone at the BBC, working under the pressure of budget cuts, had simply set about it with the Sun-In. Talk about Eighties: the poor sod looks like David Van Day from Dollar, which really doesn’t help when you’re pretending to be Aiden Hoynes, a Machiavellian former secretary of state for business with designs on No 10.

On the plus side, at least his wife, Freya Gardner (played by Emily Watson), the new secretary of state for work and pensions, looks nothing at all like Thereza Bazar (also late of the pop duo Dollar) – though it must be said that some of her moves in the bedroom could have come straight out of one of the band’s videos. Crikey, again. Is this how Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper carry on of an evening? No, don’t answer that. It was a rhetorical question.

But I’m rushing ahead of myself. What is The Politician’s Husband about? Apparently it’s about the “cesspit” of British politics (copyright: Hoynes’ father, a retired lecturer at the LSE) – a stinky world where you can’t trust anyone, not even your own wife. The set-up goes like this. Hoynes resigned from the cabinet, Hezza-style, hoping that this would trigger a leadership election that he would then win. However, his best friend and fellow cabinet member, Babbish – played with all the aplomb of a teak sideboard by Ed Stoppard – refused to back him in front of the cameras, with the result that, isolated and outcast, he has had to fall back on plan B: his wife. Having encouraged Freya to accept her own seat in cabinet, he intends using her as a spy and a weapon.

The only trouble is that the worm appears to be turning. Freya is clearly rather enjoying her taste of power. On Newsnight, she couldn’t even bring herself to tell Kirsty that she agreed with her husband’s dissident views on immigration. Poor Aiden. Where will this disloyalty end? He must be worried. Any minute now, she’s going to ditch their rampant sex life and cuddle up with her red box instead. Either that, or she’ll end up boffing Babbish, his nemesis.

Watson is a decent actor, but she’s not my – or anyone’s – idea of an MP, especially not a Tory one (the “dissident” immigration thing – in his resignation speech, Aiden claimed to be in favour of more of it – makes me think they must all be Tories after all). Those googly eyes, that tremulous voice; they just don’t work in this context. You can’t feel her ambition. Called to a meeting at Downing Street, she wandered into the cabinet room and, in a reverie of aspiration so intense I half expected Derren Brown to appear from behind the nearest baize door, lowered herself slowly into the PM’s seat. Instead of looking hungry, though, she merely looked like she had taken too much Valium.

Of course, this isn’t only Watson’s fault. What possessed Milne to come up with such an utterly lame scene? A good bit of writing would have had Freya greedily flicking her eyes in the direction of the cabinet table over her powder compact, not breaking her cover entirely. Because if she’s this obvious at the very epicentre of power – the chief whip, aka Roger Allam, might have strolled in at any moment – what chance does she have at home, where Aiden prowls anxiously in his dressing gown? (Another odd overstatement; he’s still an MP, after all.)

Not much, I’d say – though you can perhaps forgive her for having a false sense of security so far as her husband goes. Anyone would, given that hair.

David Tennant in The Politician's Husband. Photograph: BBC

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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