Part domestic thriller, part revenge narrative, Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s Hysteria is a deadly contribution to the recent wave of female-centred “grip-lit” bestsellers.
With the feminist edge of The Woman in the Window and the narrative tension of The Girl on the Train, the book follows the sedate and dreamy young mother Heike Lerner, who finds a ghostly child and an abandoned cabin in the woods of rural New York. Things are especially sinister because Heike’s former psychiatrist/current husband, Eric, is slowly manipulating her until she thinks she’s going insane.
Yet, the idea that Heike may actually be going mad is plausible, considering the meds Eric forcibly administers with militant regularity – not to mention her past trauma. In the book’s introductory section, a flashback to the end of World War II, a teenage Heike escapes the Dresden bombings with her little sister Lena and treks through the woods to the Swiss border. Along the way, Lena mysteriously disappears from Heike’s side in the middle of the night, never to be seen again.
By 1956, the book’s present-day, Heike has mostly recuperated from an accident that left her widowed. Often tired, foggy, and prone to migraines, she’s now married to the doctor who aided her recovery. Eric is patronizing and controlling, and Heike is increasingly suspicious of him – though no one seems to notice how bad things are. Despite his pills and tonics, she’s not really getting any better – all she does is sleep. When their son Daniel disappears, Eric reacts with a chilly indifference as Heike spirals into a frenzied breakdown. The lost little boy is a crucial part of Hysteria’s terror, but Eric’s slow, discreet malice is at its core.
De Mariaffi’s description of Heike’s physical environment is cinematically rendered – the recurring bird imagery, often presented within a fairy tale motif, evokes Hitchcock and the mid-century horror. But both setting and character are slippery – shadows and innuendo are everywhere, and nothing is as it seems. Characters are revealed with a carefully calibrated restraint, leaving readers desperate to find out who is reliable, who is sane. The book’s precision lies in the way we are drip-fed. Half-formed sentences threaten to make us wonder if we, too, are going mad.
Building on themes previously explored in de Mariaffi’s debut novel The Devil You Know, Hysteria’s critique of misogyny, gendered psychological abuse, and the cavalier treatment of mental illness is as ice-pick-sharp as Heike’s headaches.
By its conclusion, the book takes the typical approach of the psychological thriller –to treat women as victims – and turns it on its head. Well-suited to the cultural current of #MeToo, it offers an important caveat: when the silenced woman achieves agency, it’s a triumph – but not a resolution. Like Eric’s medicine, the remedies currently on offer may be enough to treat our symptoms, but not our sickness.