Freya Berry’s debut novel, The Dictator’s Wife, is a book fraught with uncomfortable realities buried beneath layers of secrets, lies and misinformation. But it’s also unnerving for an altogether different reason too. As we helplessly watch the distressing and shocking scenes of the war on Ukraine unfold in real time, we’re reminded of what devastation dictators can inflict on other countries and their own. When these kinds of terrible events in history happen, we find ourselves speculating on how a person could wreak such fear and chaos. Beyond this, we also wonder what kind of person could marry and/or love someone with such disregard for human life and freedom. It’s this question that lies at the heart of Berry’s novel, yet the answer is much more complicated and twisted than it initially seems.
Young lawyer Laura Lăzărescu has been assigned to a high-profile case that could make her career. Having grown up in England as the child of immigrants, she’s completely disconnected from her family’s heritage, but with the trial taking place in her parents’ homeland of Yanussia, Laura hopes she can finally find answers to the questions that have been plaguing her for years. Why did her parents flee Yanussia when she was a child? What was so terrible that it left both of them – particular Laura’s once-vibrant mother – traumatised and unable to show their only daughter love? And why did they erase every connection to their homeland, forcing Laura to feel unmoored in her own home?
Though Laura doesn’t know it before she arrives in Yanussia, everything – all the questions, all the trauma, all the years she spent tiptoeing around her parents, yearning for the smallest sign of affection – comes back to the client she’s been sent to defend: Marija Popa, the wife of Constantin, the murdered dictator who created anarchy and poverty in the Eastern European country, whilst his own family lived a life of riches and luxury. Disobeying her parents’ plea for her not to go back, Laura finds herself pulled into Marija’s web, drawn to her like a moth to a flame, a curious fascination that turns into a dark infatuation. Yet the closer Laura gets to the terrible truth, the more she can’t turn back – something that not only threatens to derail the case, but her own life too.
Now I was here, on behalf of the woman whose husband had controlled it all. How much had she known? How tainted was she, and therefore how tainted was I by association?”
Through her work as a financial and political journalist, Freya Berry was inspired by watching the wives of dictators and strongmen – particularly Melania Trump during the US election in 2016. These women often carry with them an air of detachment, an aloofness that can come across as cold and indifferent, sometimes even calculating. Marija, the dictator’s wife of the title, certainly seems to be all of these things, though she’s so much more – as Laura soon discovers. Marija has a magnetic allure that Laura can’t resist, even though she knows she’s being lured into the spider’s trap. There’s a power play going on between these two women and whilst for much of the novel it feels as if Marija is the one in control, Laura has an innate tenacity that makes her willing to do whatever it takes to dig out the truth – even if it hurts her irrevocably in the process.
The Dictator’s Wife is an incredibly dark, chilling and visceral novel, dealing with themes of war and power but also abuse and dysfunctional families. Through Berry’s articulate and thought-provoking writing, it shows how the ripple effects of parental trauma can affect a child, and how hiding things from those you love in order to protect them can often do more harm than good. The darkness creeps up on you slowly at first, a disquieting atmosphere that warns of something bad waiting for Laura in Yanussia (a fictional country), and it gradually builds until that sense of claustrophobia and sickening wrongness is all-consuming. Like Laura, you feel compelled to keep going, to get to the end, even when the truth begins to feel like something you actually don’t want to know.
On the surface this is a tale about a woman standing trial for her husband’s crimes. Is she guilty? Was she complicit? Or could she have been a victim too? But the outcome of Marija’s trial doesn’t seem as important as Laura’s own journey to find out what happened to her parents and how it links back to her personally. It’s the kind of novel that shocks and repels and keeps you firmly in its clutches until the very end. Yet, despite the relentless heartache and dread, The Dictator’s Wife somehow manages to finish with a note of hope – a speck of light within the darkness that acts as a fortuitous reminder that we can survive terrible things and terrible people.
The Dictator’s Wife was published by Headline Review on 17 February 2022