I liked the sound of Ani Katz’ A Good Man, even before it started popping up in my Twitter timeline. It seemed to be about a family man who adores his wife and daughter but fails to protect them, something he considers to be his job. I’d had hopes of an interesting examination of how a ‘good man’ might be portrayed but what I hadn’t expected was a superbly drawn unreliable narrator, one of my favourite literary devices.
Married to a beautiful woman, the father of a bright daughter and established in a lucrative career, Thomas Martin appears to epitomise a happy, successful middle-aged man. He and Miriam live with Ava in a smart modern house, a social world away from the run down home inherited by his abusive alcoholic father where his mother and twin sisters still live. Miriam has never had a job, keeping house for Thomas and raising their daughter, rarely seeing her parents in her native France. Thomas has worked hard to afford the home he was determined his family would have, although Miriam’s trust fund helped despite her reluctance to leave the Brooklyn neighbourhood where she was happy. He’s trusted at work, his boss happy for him to pitch to the most prestigious clients, and respected by his two female colleagues. There are worries – dark memories of his difficult childhood, the loss of his elder sister and Ava’s pushing of the boundaries – but life is good. At least that’s the story Thomas tells himself and us but as this carefully controlled existence unravels, we begin to see that there may be other versions to tell, other interpretations to be made.
I want us to have everything I never had, I said. I want to build a shell around us so that we’ll be protected.
Katz keeps the tension nicely taut as she unfolds this story of a man who is convinced of his own best motives while letting slip hints that suggest otherwise. We’ve been primed from the start that things will not end well, and I suspect that ending will come as no surprise, but the denouement is not the point of this novella which explores what constitutes a ‘good man’ in some men’s eyes. What Thomas views as protecting his family, others would construe as coercive and controlling, a word of which he’s very fond. Katz is careful not to portray Thomas as a monster; he’s a man who’s believes himself to be doing what’s best for his family yet his behaviour towards them – and others – proves as toxic as his violent, abusive father’s. There’s a gradual ratcheting up of suspense as Thomas builds towards his story’s inevitable climax, deftly handled by Katz. It’s a smart debut, both compelling and disturbing, delivered with the kind of confidence that makes me keen to see what Katz will come up with next.
William Heinemann: London 2020 9781785152214 214 pages Hardback