Innocent or guilty ? It is not straightforward

The Dictator’s Wife by Freya Berry is set in the fictional country of Yanussia (based on Romania I think). The country has until recently been ruled by a dictator but he has been overthrown and is now dead and his wife Marija is to stand trial for the atrocities committed under her husband’s regime. Marija claims that she knew nothing of what her husband did when he was in power and has dismissed her first legal team and demanded the assistance of a major London firm known for winning difficult cases. The team of three who travel out to prepare for the trial includes Laura, a lawyer whose family fled from Yanussia when she was a child.

Laura and her colleagues have to prepare the case as Marija instructs but they find it difficult to believe that she is totally innocent and that they can win the legal case. The Yanussian people are divided between those who are hostile to the dictator’s wife and those who are loyal to her. Laura has a troubled relationship with her parents which she dates to their migration to the UK and she is convinced that there are secrets to uncover about her life and the family of her boyfriend. We see the whole period of time through Laura’s eyes and we only understand things when she uncovers new facts. But Laura is captivated by Marija and confused by what she finds out about the past and her family.

This is a brilliant novel. I found it completely gripping. The tension level is high throughout and we are never sure whether Marija is guilty or innocent or if what she is saying is the truth. Each revelation seems to change our understanding of her and her past. The reader is as confused as Laura for most of the book. I would have preferred it if I could have liked Laura more as I did find her continual self-pity wearing and her attitude to her mother not particularly pleasant but it is understandable in the circumstances.

This book is cleverly constructed and beautifully written. It asks questions about truth and identity and how we define ourselves. I enjoyed it a lot.

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