Why is it that the world remains so fascinated by politician’s wives? Jackie Kennedy can be recognised by one singular outfit. One of the most popular musicals of all time is about Eva Peron. Carrie Johnson–and her distaste for “John Lewis nightmare” decor in Number 10–is a regular tabloid fixture in the UK.
But for totalitarian leaders, their partners become an extension of themselves, and a useful foil or distraction. Just think of the Philippines, where the Marcos regime tortured dissenters while the media covered Imelda’s shoe collection. Or how the downfall of the Iranian Shah was brought on in part by the Queen’s taste for pricey modern art and European jetsetting.
Freya Berry’s THE DICTATOR’S WIFE examines this curious expression of political grandstanding through the story of Yanussia, a fictional dictatorship led by the Popas. The narrator, Laura, is a Yanussian refugee now working as a lawyer. Her job is to defend Marija Popa, the late wife of the toppled dictator, facing prosecution for her husband’s crimes. But is she really the guilty one here? It’s a story of identity, national mythmaking, and most importantly–complicity in relationships.
This is such a unique and compelling story, but one that is hard to describe. Berry crafts Yanussia in such a fantastic way–there are shades of Romania, Hungary, the Philippines, without any parody. The central mystery kept me turning pages (well, tapping my Kindle screen) long into the night. Lots will draw parallels to the title character–Melania Trump, Eva Peron, of course Imelda Marcos–but yet Marija Popa feels all her own. Berry shows such incredible promise, and I can’t help but compare her to Ottessa Moshfegh, one of my favourite authors. This is definitely one to watch, and one not to miss.
Thank you to NetGalley and Headline Books for the ARC.
RATING: 5/5 STARS
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