After Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003) became a smash hit bestseller, novels with the word “wife” in the title began to proliferate, perhaps peaking with the publication of Jane Corry’s My Husband’s Wife (2016).
Tahmima Anam has now made her own contribution, with The Startup Wife. Anyone who has read Anam’s previously published trilogy of novels tracing the chronicles of a family from the Bangladesh war of independence to the present day, will know not to expect a domestic thriller from her latest book, however. The word “wife” dangles in the title as an apparent warning, nonetheless.
Asha Ray, a talented computer scientist halfway through her PhD, is the wife. At a funeral, she meets again the man she had had a high school crush on, 13 years after she last saw him and they marry without ceremony two months later. Her new husband, Cyrus Jones, has magnificent hair, a dead mother and is “encyclopaedically brilliant”. He is also, his wife observes, “a little bit ghost”. This absence at the centre of the novel may be deliberate, but it gives the couple’s relationship a kind of flatness.
Anam makes a noble effort to make their relationship believable – it can be difficult to portray a happy marriage credibly but she manages for the most part. The narrative problems arise, surprisingly, as marital tensions surface – Cyrus is such an enigma that it can be difficult for the reader to view him as Asha’s equal (he appears both mythic and bland) and fully invest in how his instincts pull him in a different direction to her.
Before this happens, Anam has great fun satirising the tech world Asha and Cyrus are part of. This is an arena Anam knows intimately, as for the past decade she has been on the board of Roli – a music start-up company founded by her husband, although she is keen to emphasise that the characters in the novel are not taken from life.
Asha and Cyrus, alongside Cyrus’s best friend Jules, develop a social networking app called We Are Infinite (WAI for short) which is centred around faith and ritual. It’s this that Asha puts her PhD on hold for – so that she can write the code for WAI – and she and Cyrus move back in with her Bengali parents who are “surprised I ever left”. There is gentle comedy to be had in this domestic set up, not least when Asha’s father tells her, of her husband, “‘It’s time you stopped calling him white people,’” and she reflects “My father hasn’t had an opinion in several years, so I feel I shouldn’t disagree.”
WAI share office space with a woman called Destiny, who is developing the app Consentify, which is “going to make you sign a contract every time you want to touch someone” and also with Marco, who has created Obit.ly, “a platform that manages all the social and public aspects of death.” The attempt for technology to manage every facet of human experience from sex to death to mourning, inevitably spells danger and turbocharges the plot.
I couldn’t help but wish Anam had given her sense of humour even greater bandwidth, however, because there is so much fun to be had from the high school band made up of twins who call themselves “One Placenta” or the faux fish pie that developers find themselves unable to stop eating, washed down with puffs of “vitamin smoke”.
There’s also Flitter, a vibrator like a tiny pink hair clip, designed to be used in breaks at work – Destiny asks to keep the sample she is given, after using it for a few minutes in the office bathroom. As a bride, Asha wants to avoid wearing “a sari safety-pinned to me so tightly I’d be doing Kegels without even trying”. It’s these moments that bring the text alive, although it is harder to engage with the way in which Asha cedes workplace control to her husband.
In the acknowledgements, Anam mentions that she considered publishing the novel under a pseudonym “because I was worried it wasn’t serious enough”. The problem is not that it is not serious enough but that, in spite of the handbag vibrators and CBD milkshakes, it didn’t – at least for me – truly come alive.
The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam (Canongate, £14.99)