Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Tony & Susan by Austin Wright Review

Susan leads a comfortable suburban life: a doctor’s wife, a mother and homemaker, her quiet existence is interrupted when she receives her ex-husband Edward’s debut manuscript for her review: a novel called Nocturnal Animals. But she and Edward divorced over twenty years ago – why would he reach out to her now? Then as Susan begins reading she notices pieces of herself in the story – a vicious, dark story of revenge, rape and murder. Is Edward exorcising demons through his art or is this a veiled threat of what he’s planning to do to her and her family…? 

Jake Gyllenhaal is one of my favourite actors who’s almost always in really interesting movies so when I saw the trailer for Nocturnal Animals, I wanted to read Austin Wright’s novel, Tony & Susan, first. I haven’t seen the movie yet but I hope it’s better than Wright’s novel – not that the book is bad but it’s very uneven in quality. 

The first hundred or so pages are amazing. Tony is the protagonist of Edward’s novel and he and his wife and daughter are headed to their holiday home in Maine, driving through the night to get there as soon as possible. Then at some point in the night they’re forced off the road and confronted by three thugs who separate Tony from his family, drive off with his wife and daughter, and things get worse from then on. Wright ramps up the tension superbly and the narrative is wonderfully unpredictable and as fast-paced as a great thriller should be. I even liked the little touches of awkwardly phrased sentences dotted throughout to remind you we’re reading an unedited manuscript which has yet to be buffed out. 

But after that initial burst of excitement things unfortunately slow down considerably. The novel shifts gears down quickly from a thriller to a slow, ponderous introspective character portrait that’s much less compelling to read. The story improves once the investigation for the thugs gets underway and every time Wright focuses on this, the novel becomes great again – the problem is when the narrative switches to Tony’s dreary day-to-day which is at least half the time. 

The story progresses slowly but it does progress and some scenes are better than others - Susan’s chapters, while few, were very dull and the final act is interminably drawn-out. The story is framed with Susan reading Edward’s novel - a story within a story – and what kept my interest the most throughout was the expectation of seeing Edward at the end and finding out what the point of it all was; except the ending is very underwhelming and disappointing. 

That said, you could – reading deeply between the lines – interpret a more satisfying meaning to it all symbolically. (Spoilers at bottom of review). 

That’s how it goes sometimes with literary fiction: the genre loves the open-ended interpretations and it depends on the reader how they want to see it – and there’s almost certainly other ways to look at the novel I haven’t considered. 

The first hundred pages were outstanding and the rest of the book was intermittently good, though it really felt like a lot of scenes dragged on which diminished my enjoyment of the story. The ending too was really weak and, while you can come up with interpretations for it like I did, it feels like a helluva lot more heavy-lifting on the reader’s part to make up for the too-soft author’s touch – I can see why some people might resent that. Tony & Susan is an unusual and original novel that suffers the same problem a lot of literary novels do: letting the artiness get in the way of a good story.


Tony’s wife and daughter could represent Susan while Ray Marcus (the rapist/murderer) could be Edward’s rage at Susan for cheating on and divorcing him; that all of them die could be Edward’s rage at Susan also dying (an idea highlighted by Edward not meeting Susan at the end to discuss her feedback of his book – he doesn’t care, he just wanted her to know that he’d moved on). 

Tony is written as a very weak-willed man and the flashback chapters to Susan and Edward’s married life shows Edward as similarly passive; Tony’s death at the end could represent the death of Edward’s passivity. In those same flashbacks, Susan is shown to doubt, even scorn, Edward’s literary ambitions and the manuscript she’s reading could represent Edward’s true revenge: that he became what she didn’t believe he would ever be: a great writer. Edward’s triumph is underscored by Susan’s current predicament where she is seemingly being edged out of her already shaky marriage by a younger woman in a similar way to how she got rid of her current husband’s first wife. Susan is shown to be a pathetic figure while Edward has achieved his dreams. That’s his real revenge: not in inflicting violence but by being a success. 

Though that’s the ending I like the most that might be too upbeat an ending and you could go another way with it. Edward is still bitter about Susan, hence why he sent her his manuscript at all – after all, you wouldn’t still want to prove something to someone you’ve gotten over years ago, would you? Detective Andes, in revealing he has cancer, could be Edward’s way of telling Susan that he has cancer; Tony’s death at the end could be Edward telling Susan that he’s going to commit suicide. That’s the real reason why he doesn’t show up at the end to meet Susan: he’s dead. I think that’s a bit of a silly interpretation though – would you really write an elaborate 300+ page suicide note disguised as a novel? Especially given that Edward’s ambition was to be a writer which he accomplishes in writing a pretty decent first novel, thus giving him a reason to live. Unless he has terminal cancer but still, a novel-sized puzzle of a suicide note is still ridiculous. 

Or, continuing this idea of Susan as a pathetic figure, maybe Tony is really meant to be Susan – hence the pairing in the title. In which case, maybe it is a threat against her life: Tony goes through hell before dying, so is that what Edward has in mind for her?

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