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While many books are described as dark, few live up to the label. Shooting Martha is one of those exceptions. Written by veteran actor David Thewlis whose film credits include Mike Leigh masterpieces and The Big Lebowski, this psychological thriller brings a fresh perspective to the genre of doppelgänger fiction, with the odd reference to decomposing corpses thrown in.
Constantly shifting perspective, the novel has twoflesh-and-blood protagonists. One is the slightly unhinged actor Betty Dean and the other is the brooding film director Jack Drake, while Jack’s deceased wife Martha is also a constant presence. In fact, the book boils down to a central premise described by its publishers: Jack is a man who can’t live without his wife’s support. The only problem is, she’s dead.
Near the start of the action, a grieving Jack spots Betty playing a deranged nun in a production of The Devils. Convinced she is the double of Martha, he promises to pay her £10,000 to move to his mansion in the south of France and perform a series of scripted conversations posing as Martha. At the same time, Jack is working from his childhood home in London to complete his latest film, which depicts the suicide of his father and his mother’s decision to hide the decomposing corpse in the family home. As Jack puts it: “The dead must be watched carefully, and if necessary, as my mother well knew, one must have a word with them.”
Let’s be clear: neither Betty nor Jack is very likeable. There is, however, a bleak humour in their total selfishness. It’s difficult not to snigger when the acerbic Jack casually asks a child actor how he’d feel if his own mother hid his father’s festering body or when Betty throws a tantrum because she is briefly forced to give up alcohol.
With such a plot, it’s no surprise Shooting Martha quicklyenters into the territory of doppelgänger fiction. Living in Martha’s former home, Betty soon becomes obsessed with getting inside her predecessor’s mind. “It was not merely a matter of living with Martha, within Martha, but living as Martha, following every impulse to its place of rest.”
From the outset, however, it’s clear that Thewlisis keen to experiment with the conventions of the genre. While the protagonist of doppelgänger fiction is typically unaware of their second self, Betty finds the notion strangely seductive – and even amusing: “Sometimes it was a chilling jumble that gave way to something neither of them had heard before, whom one of them called Marty and the other referred to as Bertha, and then they both laughed.”
As soon as Betty moves into Jack’s home, an oppressive sense of voyeurism that had rumbled beneath the surface from novel’s opening sentences comes to the fore. One of Thewlis’ cleverest tricks in Shooting Martha is to make the reader somehow complicit in this act of voyeurism. Thanks to the novel’s dual perspective, the reader often knows more about the characters’ circumstances than they do themselves. As a result, we sometimes feel as though we, too, have become perverse peeping Toms observing the characters’ private moments.
Coupled with frequent references to the act of filming, this effect gives Shooting Martha a decidedly cinematic quality. In fact, the novel often feels more reminiscent of films such as Rear Window, Sex Lies and Videotape, or Swimming Pool than of a book.
Another of the more sinister aspects of the novelis its focus on prosthetic or dismembered body parts. While she was alive, Martha had claimed to be “the most decapitated actress in the business.” As if to prove her right, Jack treasures a silicone version of her head remaining from her portrayal of Anne Boleyn at the National Theatre. We also learn she had a titanium hip, despite being only 42 at the time of her death…the serial number of which is the only means of identifying her remains. The grim comedy of this detail perfectly sums up the tightrope between darkness and humour that Thewlis treads.
The representation of parental figures in the novel is equally bleak. Although the book opens with Betty playing lovingly with her son, she later confesses, “it was chilling to feel resentment towards her own child.” We also discover that Jack’s father had conspired (unsuccessfully) for his son to discover his body after his suicide, which led to young Jack’s morbid fascination with detailing the various stages of his father’s decomposition to his classmates.
But despite the darkness of these themes, there are glimmers of compassion from some of the secondary characters. Betty’s sister cares tirelessly for their aging father, while the handyman who shares Jack’s home with Betty exhibits real kindness. And we suspect Betty and Jack only behave the way they do through genuine unhappiness. Who wouldn’t be disturbed following a childhood like Jack’s?
One thing you can’t help but notice when reading Shooting Martha is that Thewlis’s acting background pervades almost every aspect of the novel. Having won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival award for his role in Mike Leigh’s Naked in 1993,he later had roles in film such as Seven Years in Tibet. Perhaps only an actor could so perfectly describe the process through which Betty transforms into her alter ego. “She had observed precisely how Martha crossed her legs, when she crossed her legs and why she crossed her legs. Or at what point in a conversation she pushed the hair from her face.”
Yet the acting world Thewlis describes isn’t one of Hollywood glamour but of chaos and fading glory. Jack wears an overcoat stolen from Peter O’Toole and remembers a night Orson Welles spent snoring on the library floor in his childhood home.
It isn’t until you have finished Shooting Martha that you appreciate the skill with which Thewlis has plotted its story arc. In our first glimpse of Betty, we see her amusing her six-year-old son by impersonating neighbours and babysitters. Thewlis later references this moment as Betty chillingly imagines what he would make of her current vocation. “Do Mrs. Martha, Mummy, do the dead lady.”
The development of Jack’s character is even more cleverly crafted, although impossible to explain without giving away the ending. So, does Shooting Martha live up to its early feelings of suspense? One of the main things I took away from the novel is its profoundly disturbing plot twist that stayed with me for days. Yet this occurs several chapters before the end of the novel, whose actual ending is perhaps inevitably less fulfilling, although it is, by no means, a disappointment.
Without a doubt, Thewlis’s biggest achievement in Shooting Martha is the creation of a ghostly central character who never appears yet is utterly compelling. Like Jack (and eventually Betty), the reader eventually becomes totally fixated on a dead woman.
By David Thewlis
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 336 pages