His Secret Little Wife
(Steerforth Press, October 2006)
Fredrica Wagman’s latest novel, His Secret Little Wife, centers on a pretty, sagacious 10-year-old named Hannah. At first glance, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about this girl’s life. Her mother and her Catholic school make her miserable; she begrudgingly takes cello lessons from her deaf grandmother. But Hannah’s mundane days are injected with salacious drama when the renowned composer Otto Von Ochenstein moves in next door.
The Maestro is a reptilian, ill-tempered man. He ignores his plain-looking daughter and is ashamed of his modest roots. Hannah develops a seemingly innocent crush on him, and he too admires his neighbor’s nymph-like beauty from afar. Their flirtation doesn’t remain innocent though. Ochenstein uses binoculars to peer into the young girl’s bedroom, which she shares with her grandmother. Undaunted, Hannah parades around sensuously for him, stripping from her pajamas to her underwear. The remainder of the novel is a brutally candid tale that traces the precarious boundaries between love, longing, sex, and abuse.
Eventually, the pedophilic Maestro takes over Hannah’s cello tutelage and grooms her to become a world-class musician. She’s so prodigiously obsessed with him that she’s not even saddened when her grandmother dies.
My grandmother hid under her bed while she was dying, it was hard to get her out…my mother never mourned; all she said was that she dreamed about my grandmother every night as she cleared out her dresser and her closet, leaving me for the first time the legacy of my own room… which suddenly made the excitement of night boundless.
Such pieces of prose abound in His Secret Little Wife. The book is defined by short, digestible chapters and reflective sentences split by ellipses, and Wagman’s words possess a poetic levity that effectively recreates Hannah’s troubled universe. The narrator is the adult Hannah, who’s looking back on her childhood. This voice triumphs in its ability to unabashedly recount the protagonist’s uniquely sensual sensibilities: “I with a great smear of bright red lipstick…my hair down…long fake pearls in my ears and no underwear—nothing!”
These musings provide fresh insight into the confusion of pre-pubescent psychology. Hannah is physically mature enough to engage in a sexual relationship. Yet, when it comes to understanding the nature of desire, she only possesses the faculties of a child. The girl is fixated with her lower lip, for example, and reasons that it is this part of her body that makes her attractive to the Maestro. It looks “exactly like a tiny little behind, complete with a tiny little crease down the centre with two tiny little puffy cheeks on either side.”
Not all of Wagman’s characters are as three-dimensional though. Hannah’s insecurity and unhappiness can be ascribed to her mother, Kosi Gold, a bitter control freak. But the reasons for Kosi Gold’s rancor and acrimony are never elucidated, which not only leaves us with an incomplete portrait of this key character, but also of Hannah. The author’s previous novels Magic Man, Magic Man and Mrs Hornstein are plagued by similar problems. Her literature contains female characters that are demonized to a fairytale-like extent, and readers are left yearning for a more complex deconstruction of their behavior.
Nonetheless, His Secret Little Wife is successful because it extracts Hannah from the confines of youth, forcing us to consider this pre-teenager as a seductive body-conscious nymphet. At times, we aren’t sure whether to be aghast by Hannah’s vulnerability and victimization, or to hope alongside her that the affair with the Maestro will endure. Readers are forced to inhabit morality’s grey areas for 156 pages. This psychological and emotional novel is haunting in its brazen treatment of taboo and beautiful in its lyrical observation of childhood.