In Louise Mey’s beautifully written psychological thriller, The Second Woman, a grieving ‘crying’ man is not what he seems – and neither is the story of his missing wife.
Content Warning: this review discusses issues around gender-based and domestic violence.
Coercion, isolation, and initial, unrelenting admiration are all fundamental properties of abusive relationships. During the pandemic people have been alone more than ever, and abuse has increased phenomenally because of it. We have all been locked inside, locked down, but many, most often women, have been trapped with their abusive partners, leading to more and more cases of violence and an increase in rates of femicide.
It is with this in mind that The Second Woman by Louise Mey, translated into English by Louise Rogers Lalaurie, deftly delves into Sandrine’s self-loathing existence. Completely isolated, seemingly by the past pandemic, Sandrine battles with internal hatred, calling herself harsh names (“fat, fat and ugly, stupid, stupid bitch”) with little to no provocation, and coveting the attention of her perfect partner, the crying man, to the detriment of her own self.
We are breathed into Sandrine’s reality, a reality where she is cruel towards her own character, appearance, and capabilities, but sensitive and delicate to those around her. So delicate, in fact, that she meets her partner when he is in the depths of grief. Swallowed whole by fear and inadequacy, broken by a difficult childhood, she seeks out a man she sees on television, one whose wife has inconceivably gone missing. She reaches out to his grieving family, joining them on a walk to search for the missing woman, hoping to bring both the man and his beautiful boy, Mathias, strength. She attempts to lend a hand and, with the hinted promise to slot into a fully formed, newly available female gap, she keeps coming back. She tries to become everything she wishes she could be, everything she imagines the first woman was, and she does this only out of kindness and yearning. She works hard for Mathias and the man, and her existence becomes validated. She becomes the second woman.
The Second Woman is a novel of hidden lives and worlds. Initially presented as a story exploring what happens when the first wife, the first woman, is revealed to be alive – Sandrine worries “he will throw [her] out because the other woman is alive” – it quickly becomes obvious that this is a not a story about a missing person, but about what both women may be running from, or what danger they may have been, and may still be, living with.
Gradually the violent undercurrents are peeled back for the reader, showing the abrasive truth of Monsieur Langlois, the crying man’s (more truthful) alter ego, scratching at the surface and causing deep cracks in Sandrine’s rehearsed, perfect, but unreal reality. Roger Lalaurie’s translation leaves nothing loose. There is fear, submission, adoration, all demonstrating an experience which transcends language and place. This is not only something that happens in France and which we are transported to another country to learn about; instead, it is a universally applicable tale. And through beautifully violent language, full of vitriol and flowers, we see it all unfold.
Through each new sliver of information, we learn about Sandrine’s life with both the crying man – “he smooths her hair, tucks a lock behind her ear”, “he’s sorry, he’s always so very sorry” – and Monsieur Langlois – “he groans like an animal and releases her” and “his words roar like thunder”. Each new layer demonstrates the predicament Sandrine is stuck in, the one he has put her in. She’s trapped. She’s locked in. And ultimately, “even if she wanted to leave the man who cries, Monsieur Langlois would never let her.”
Mey’s careful examination of the subtle cruelties women face when abused by men in their life – relentless abuse which chases and drags you down so that you believe the badness is rooted in yourself rather than in the abusers – splits open the truth. Sandrine is so besotted with the idea of a man she once saw through a screen that she forgives who he repeatedly shows himself to be. And matters are made worse by Sandrine’s maternal need to protect Mathias. He is a small boy, a shy boy, and she will do anything for him, yet she cannot see, or cannot will herself to see, why he is the way he is. The Second Woman shows that abuse stretches far beyond control of one being.
There’s a violent, frightened joy in Sandrine’s gradual freedom. It may be a struggle, but a small voice, a ray of hope, breaks through; one that Sandrine recognises, and still “the voice had so little time to gather strength” it takes a while; it requires support. And what perhaps is most important here is how comradery and friendship are presented as key for overcoming an abusive situation: being the second woman has its benefits in that there is also a first.
But will she be able to start again? It’s not quite as simple as getting away. In The Second Woman the stakes are high, and Sandrine believes herself to be alone, yet when she realises she is not, when she is repeatedly told she is not, far more can be done to destroy the man who pushes her down. While the raw pain Sandrine experiences in The Second Woman can be hard to stomach at times, Mey’s persistence in exposing the intricacies of domestic violence is not.
Louise Mey’s The Second Woman, translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie and published by Pushkin Press, is available to purchase now online and in all good bookshops.
If anything in this article has affected you, please contact Refuge’s 24hr National Domestic Abuse Helpline, for free, on 0808 2000 247 or visit www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk and see here for helplines all over the UK.
Feature photograph is a detail of Louise Mey, taken by Dwam Ipomée.