Reviewed: The Woman in the Library, Sulari Gentill, Ultimo Press
The Woman in the Library is a book about a writer writing a book about a writer writing a book. Though much of the solitary act of writing is difficult to externalise let alone dramatise, Sulari Gentill’s thrilling, twisty, meta murder mystery is the glossy sheen through which we access the inner thoughts and motivations of two writers: bestselling Australian crime writer Hannah Tigone and her creation, Winifred ‘Freddie’ Kincaid, also a crime writer. In this palimpsest of writers as subjects and creators, duplicitous desires, suspect pasts and obscured truths are uncovered.
Bearing a central conceit reminiscent of lockdown TV hit Only Murders in the Building, four strangers (Freddie, Cain, Whit and Marigold) simultaneously hear a woman’s disembodied scream while sitting together at the Boston Public Library. United by happenstance and bound by a collective goal to uncover a killer in their midst after the woman’s body is discovered, an unlikely friendship group is formed.
Meanwhile, letters between Hannah and middling American writer Leo serve as a frame for the story, as he advises her on her manuscript. For Hannah, Leo is her passport into another world, her constructive critic and her cheerleader, showing that writing is often best done collaboratively. But as his correspondences to Hannah grow more erratic and sinister, elevating the outer layer through which we’re accessing the murder mystery, a parallel thriller emerges. To obscure matters further, Hannah casts Leo as a character in her book, with the boundaries between the real Leo and the fictional Leo ever shifting. Some of (real) Leo’s most villainous qualities transpire in a way that’s starkly believable to anyone who’s ever worked in the arts. When his ‘opus’ is rejected, he writes to Hannah:
The reality is, I suppose, that I am a straight white man with no diversity or disadvantage to offer as a salve for the fashionable collective guilt that rules publishing.
Gentill expertly sketches her scenes with minute details that imbue the story-in-a-story with an unmistakable sense of place and wonder. The novel is a gastronomic one in many ways: ‘warm pretzels drizzled with mustard’, ‘matcha, quinoa and star anise masterpieces’ and ‘fried clam sandwiches’ act as tantalising backdrops to the unravelling tale. The most significant revelations happen over mealtimes in restaurants, diners and the characters’ houses. Gentill effortlessly inhabits the experience of being an outsider through her character’s character Freddie—home is gestured towards in ways big and small, with Australia both missed (‘This,’ I announce, ‘is Australian chocolate. Unlike American chocolate, it’s edible.’) and mocked (‘Christmas in Australia is an exercise in irony’). There is neither unadulterated adoration nor a complete rebuke of the ongoing colonial project that is Australia, rather an ever-shifting relationship negotiated in relation and opposition to the US.
While the scaffolding of Hannah and Leo’s correspondences is an inventive, anomalous way of grounding a murder mystery, it’s also where the most autofictional parts of the narrative come to the fore. Gentill started writing The Woman in the Library when she was evacuated from her Snowy Mountains farm in the midst of raging bushfires that her husband and son were out fighting, a fact Leo gestures to in one of his early letters to Hannah as he remarks, ‘I have images of you typing just one more paragraph as the flames lick at your door’. He criticises Hannah’s refusal to reference the pandemic in her novel—a clever way for Gentill herself to address it without allowing it to dominate the story. In a Q&A published at the end of the book, she writes: ‘Leo demands its inclusion, Hannah refuses to let it into her story, but through them, I allowed it into mine.’
What compounds the meta quality of the narrative are murder mystery tropes throughout, a device Gentill employs through her fictional author-character’s characters. Cain tells the group the disembodied scream they all heard might be a red herring, while Freddie calls the case a ‘locked room mystery in reverse’. Cumulatively, they’re a way for Gentill to show readers her workings from afar without ever letting readers pre-empt where she’s going. It’s a testament to Gentill’s long career as a crime writer; she is always one step ahead.
As such, the payoff is satisfying, with the narrative’s denouement taking place across a sparse ten pages. If the eventual reveals book-ending both mysteries are a touch bathetic, it’s only because the seamless symmetry of the parallel narratives is the singular highlight. The Woman in the Library would’ve been an unputdownable, page-turning murder mystery even without the overlay of a writer writing about a writer but by utilising this framework, Gentill expands the possibilities of crime fiction even more. By grounding her story in a very specific time and place while lifting the lid on that which is often hardest for artists to articulate, she allows the space for the writerly imagination to flourish.