A RELIABLE WIFE

By Robert Goolrick

Hachette, $38.99

Disguised behind a jacket cover that makes it look like just another bodice-ripping saga, this is the most extraordinarily sensual story about lust in all its forms. Lust for money, for material things, but most of all an intense, raw lust for physical pleasure.

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Set in bitter cold Wisconsin, over one long winter early last century, it's the story of Ralph Truitt, a wealthy man whose life has been loveless and lonely. Truitt decides to advertise for a reliable wife, but the woman he chooses from his respondents is not what she seems. Beautiful Catherine Land is far from being the simple, honest person Truitt is seeking. She hides the lurid secrets of her past, throwing her fancy clothes out of the train window and dressing in plainer ones and squirrelling away her bits of jewellery before she meets him. Even the photo she sends to him is of someone else.

Catherine wins over Truitt by saving his life after a horse and carriage accident in the frozen countryside. He recovers, is grateful and unable to resist what her body offers. But gradually we learn the truth about Catherine, the evil of her intent and the person who lies behind it. She is sent to the city on a mission to bring back Truitt's errant son and re-enters her own bohemian world. There she becomes a woman with a dilemma, unsure of the course she should take. And just like Truitt, even when we see exactly what Catherine is made of, we cannot help but be seduced by her.

This is American author Goolrick's first work of fiction and the tone of his writing is highly stylised and exquisite. He creates an almost unbearable eroticism in a bleak, still world in which tragedies are waiting to happen.

There's careful use of detail, slow unfolding of desire, yet somehow, Goolrick has also made of this unusual love story a darkly suspenseful and compelling psychological thriller.

Some might find the writing in A Reliable Wife overwrought, the landscape and the weather too desolate, the characters despairing. But those who love it will be captivated by its beauty, lyrical prose and gothic gloom, and be rewarded by its unexpected ending.