This is a strange feeling: there are many things about John Tagholm’s second novel that bug me, because they don’t work as well as I wish they did. Yet I stayed with Bad Marriage, and I think there is something about the whole that compensates for the weaknesses of the parts. I embark on this review without being able to articulate what that something is; perhaps by the end I’ll have a better idea.
Three strands of story run through the novel. In the first, Habiba Popals, a young British-born Pashtun woman, carries out an elaborate, Hustle-style theft of a painting from the National Gallery. The second strand deals with the investigation into the theft, spearheaded by DI Colin Tyler and the Gallery’s new head of security, Giacomo Baldini. The third explores Habiba’s past, notably her strained relationship with her late father, and the ramifications of the event that changed everything – the time when, four years previously, Habiba was assaulted by Sean Dunmore, a security guard at the National Gallery.
My first points of contention are certain aspects of the plot. I never really bought into the idea of Habiba single-handedly pulling off this elaborate con; I’m not sure whether anyone could do it without specific skills or experience, and I don’t see anything in Habiba’s background to suggest that she has such attributes. Neither was I convinced by the way that Baldini effectively takes over the investigation when he works with the police: I don’t know whether or not museum security staff have investigatory powers, but it just didn’t ring true for me.
Another problem I have with the investigation is that it doesn’t seem to uncover anything that has not already been revealed in the other plot strands, leading me to wonder whether it has any greater purpose that bringing Baldini into the story. Yet, despite all this, the way the three plot strands intertwine is like a dance; and, even if you can see what’s coming at times (and you can’t always), the experience of watching events unfold is an enjoyable one.
Tagholm’s characterisation is uneven, but can be quite effective nevertheless. The character whom I found to be most fully realised was actually Dunmore, a violent racist and misogynist with no redeeming features whatsoever; Tagholm portrays this character’s inner life vividly, and it is deeply unsettling to be inside Dunmore’s mind for any length of time. I find the author’s characterisation of Habiba to be less accomplished, however: we see her clash with her father and his more conservative outlook on life; we see her try to come to terms with her assault (the attack itself is never depicted); and we see her feelings of vulnerability harden into determined resolve – but I don’t think Tagholm succeeds in making us feel these at the same level as he does with Dunmore’s mentality. And I’m even less sure about Baldini’s character; I can’t shake the feeling that he’s just there as a device for moving the story on.
The prose of Bad Marriage is rough around the edges: I was particularly irritated by Tagholm’s occasional switching between viewpoint characters within the same scene (for example: we’re with Habiba when Dunmore first approaches her, then suddenly we have a couple of paragraphs of him leering, then we’re back to see through her eyes again), and the excessively rigid way he refers to some characters by their full names (for instance: there’s a scene of several pages where the author refers to Colin Tyler as either that or ‘the DI’, but not as ‘Tyler’ or anything else; this technique draws too much attention to the names, disrupting the flow of the writing). Yet, at the same time, the writing of Dunmore’s viewpoint works well, as I’ve already said; the passages which are there to thrill do exactly that; and I especially liked Tagholm’s evocation of the bustling National Gallery, with visitors who might be looking at the pictures, might be paying more attention to the audio tour, or might just be there because it’s a place to go.
The novel’s title refers to the concept of a marriage arranged in negative circumstances, something that happened twice in Habiba’s family history (including the marriage of her parents). There’s a suggestion that Dunmore’s assault on Habiba was itself a kind of ‘bad marriage’; and, by extension, a suggestion that Habiba’s response to the assault is also a way for her to work through her unfinished relationship with her father – or so I think. If I’m right in identifying that connection, though, I don’t think it’s made as strongly as it ought to have been.
I’ve dwelt quite a lot on the negative in this review, but have I come any closer to pinning down the elusive quality I referred to at the beginning? Actually, I think it’s what I said about the plot threads coming together like a dance. Bad Marriage may not reach the heights to which it aspires; but it does what it does fully enough to maintain one’s interest to the very end.