Gulliver’s Wife by Lauren Chater

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Reviewed by Dr Wendy J. Dunn.

 

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“… She went to bed and dreamed she was lying in a garden.  It was night time, the moon a glowing orb. The air hummed with bees as it was daytime and the ants were busy at work. She heard them chewing, rhythmical chopping as they broke down old leaves and trees for earthworms. Strange flowers bloomed overhead, exploding white petals and yellow pollen. Everything felt new and sacred, a different world to one that came before – Chater, Gulliver’s Wife.

 

Chater effortlessly takes the reader into a symbolic tale of birth, death and rebirth, a story woven through the reconstructing the past through giving life to characters birthed from another writer’s imagination. Anyone who reads literature would know of or have read the tale of Gulliver Travels. This novel constructs a story by giving voice to the imagined wife and daughter of Gulliver, Mary and Bess – the two major players of this work.

The story opens to Mary thinking herself a three-year widow, and working as a midwife to support her family. It is a profession she wants to do, and has wanted to do since girlhood – and there is a sense of relief and accomplishment in the story’s first pages that her life is no longer emboldened to anyone other than herself. Marriage has not brought her security or happiness, only years of erosion of trust and heartache. So much heartache she fears to risk marriage again, even to the man she truly loves. But then her husband is brought back into her life, telling a fantastical story of his time in a world of tiny people.

Gulliver may be the fictional character we remember in literature, but his story only forms a backdrop to this story of women doing what they can to survive in a world controlled by patriarchy. With Gulliver’s return, Mary, his wife, struggles everyday to surmount her life while coping with the demands of a self obsessed, mentally ill opium addict – a man whose morality has been eroded to such a point he steals from his own wife and children.

Mary is not only devoted to her two children, but embraces motherhood as the essence of her being. Motherhood comes with pain and sorrow – especially when you have a daughter see-sawing between childhood and adulthood, a daughter determined to reject her mother for this image she has built up in her mind and her heart of her father. It is an image which proves as fantastical as the stories produced by his opium illusions.

The mother and daughter relationship drawn in this novel is one that many mothers will be able to relate to – and take hope in. Many daughters do indeed grow up to see the ‘wonder’ of their own mothers.

While the characters in this story flesh out characters already fictional, the world they live in is a very much fleshed out and believable London of the early 18thcentury. Chater’s thorough research is wonderfully woven into the fabric of this beautifully told story. Life is harsh and dangerous – especially for those of the female sex.

Fiction and fact is fused together in such a way the reader remains totally engaged in the story. As with the finest historical fiction, this novel of women’s lives also speaks to our own times – when women still navigate a world where the master narratives are such they are so often blamed for the violence that happens to them simply because they are women. But women – past and present – always survive to re-write a better and more equal world for not only their daughters, but their sons too.

‘…there will be other challenges,” he says. “You know that.’

‘I do. But I have faith. When the surgeon’s guild comes after us, we will be meek. When they threaten us, we well submit. In public. In private, we will do what we have always have done: we will share our knowledge and thrive.”

Gulliver’s wife is exquisite, empathetic and engrossing storytelling from an extraordinarily gifted writer.