This review contains spoilers.
What if human beings could create life – reliably, wholesale, from scratch, none of this messy and uncontrollable futzing about with genitals and wombs and meiosis? It’s a question we’ve been asking since at least 1818, when Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, that archetypal mad-scientist narrative in which a pieced-together human is brought to life through the seemingly promising new technology of galvanism. Published more than 200 years later, Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife treads similar grounds, asking us, like Shelley, to consider the nature of monstrosity and of scientific and social power. It’s a smart and urgent read which nevertheless fails to achieve the timelessness of its literary forebear.
Our protagonist is Evelyn, a genetic scientist at the height of her career who has developed a method for creating full human clones and conditioning their personalities (and their bodies) to create exact doubles of the people from whom they were cloned. Despite her professional success – as the novel opens she is in fact collecting an award for her work – her personal life is in ruins: her husband Nathan has left her for another woman. It takes a few chapters for us to discover that this other woman, Martine, is in fact Evelyn’s clone, her personality tweaked and altered to suit Nathan’s desires. Of course, the trope of the artificial woman made for the male gaze is not a new one (indeed, it has an antecedent in Frankenstein itself: that novel’s lonely creature asks his creator for a mate made in the same way as himself); but having Evelyn and Martine actually meet breathes new life into it, as Evelyn is forced to confront in the differences between herself and Martine all the ways in which Nathan clearly found her deficient.
This is not, however, a tale of female solidarity. The two women do become uneasy co-conspirators: Martine has murdered Nathan, and in order to stop her work becoming discredited (Nathan having secretly created Martine from Evelyn’s notes, and even worse given her the ability to become pregnant, which is supposed to be impossible), Evelyn helps her cover the murder up through yet more cloning. But even as Evelyn introduces Martine to freedoms she’s never known – reading about the workings of her own body, making small choices about how to spend her time, nurturing the beginnings of an intellectual life – Evelyn continues to think of her as a test subject, something that will, in the nearish future, become no more than biomedical waste when it use is finished. She is, in this respect, no better than Nathan, as the novel demonstrates.
But Nathan isn’t the only man whose violence overshadows the narrative. In fits and starts we discover that Evelyn’s father abused both her and her mother for years, until he too was murdered by his seemingly pliable wife. Evelyn’s father is thus an obvious double of Nathan’s, of course – but his legacy of abuse is continued too in Evelyn’s own objectification of those around her, and especially of Martine. This is underscored by the novel’s ending, which sees Evelyn manipulating Martine into moving into her old family home – where her father lies buried under the rose bushes – there to remain a virtual prisoner, in exchange for Martine being able to keep her baby daughter Violet with her. As the novel closes, Evelyn, Martine and Violet occupy the same positions as Evelyn’s parents and Evelyn herself once did, the cycle of misogynistic abuse repeating itself in a way that Evelyn is too damaged to recognise. Thus Evelyn becomes, like Victor Frankenstein, the very thing she fears and hates.
It’s decidedly chilling, which is exactly its intended effect. And its limited sphere of action – as Kevin Guilfoile points out here, “there are basically only four characters in this novel, two of whom are genetically identical” – lends it an intense claustrophobia that evokes the way in which abuse and misogyny restrict the agency of their victims. By the same token, though, I think it’s this very narrowness of focus that makes the novel less than wholly memorable. Shelley’s Frankenstein encompasses multitudes in its tale of rivalry, revenge and wrongdoing: it asks searching questions about the ethics of experimentation, about social ostracism, about attitudes to the body, about the reliability of our own perceptions; its capaciousness and ability to sustain multiple different readings have given it an unshakable position in the Western literary canon. The Echo Wife, on the other hand, is really only about one thing: the cyclical nature of gendered abuse. On that topic, it is evocative, insightful, propulsive; it’s a strongly-constructed, appropriately dark thriller. But – as with many thrillers – its work is done in a single read. Once its point is made, there is very little else to say. In other words (and honestly I think this is what many of my reviews here boil down to): The Echo Wife is a good book. But not a great book.