The Wife

Anne-Sophie Subilia

French, Éditions Zoé, 2022

“There is a slight scent of inertia in the air.
She grabs the broom and sweeps the sand out of her house. It falls apart halfway through. She can’t be bothered to patch it up and puts the two pieces, handle and brush, in a corner. Their bedroom is where the sand manages to infiltrate best. Mysterious winds, under doors and window frames – where there is wear there is a way through. Mysterious matter, in constant motion, just like dust.”

“That night, she sleepwalks again in her nightdress. She walks barefoot onto the roof terrace and turns around slowly, her head and chest swaying under the handful of stars. Her arms spread out like wings. She goes back inside, croaking out a song that eventually wakes Vivian. He leads her gently back to bed.”

Gaza, 1974: The wife of a Red Cross delegate makes attempts to combat her sense of inertia, and through her day-to-day encounters sees unlikely flowers bloom in arid landscapes.

Her name is Piper, but the word barely appears in the story. This is what her brother Sam and her husband Vivian call her, but her proper name is lost in the narration in favour of her role: ‘the wife’, or ‘the delegate’s wife’.

Piper, originally from England, moves from Switzerland to spend a year in an unknown and half-deserted country, following her husband, an ICRC delegate, on a mission to Gaza. There, ‘the wife’, struggling to fill her days and succumbing to occasional bouts of melancholy, sends postcards embellishing reports of her outings. Nevertheless, she tries to give structure to her life, to reach out to the other, to draw closer to this bewildering elsewhere. “The wife has her appointments with the sea”. She builds relationships, both fleeting and enduring. With Hadj, the asthmatic gardener who transforms their uncultivated land into a lush vegetable garden. With Mona, the Palestinian paediatrician, a bold, independent woman with whom she develops an obsession, and who could offer her a new life. With a poor child on the beach and a baby abandoned at the hospital. With so much invested in a life that only pushes her down, she finds herself thwarted existentially and in her relationships with others.

The Wife presents the juxtaposition between this woman and a country that is foreign in every way, though more welcoming than hostile, as she discovers its flavours, its creatures and its plants. The novel’s language is carefully honed: Anne-Sophie Subilia sets out to reveal the textures of everyday life, to peck at the crumbs of the unexpected found in seemingly insignificant existences. This attention to detail, to the slow pace and richness of quiet lives, is the very essence of the story: more a tale of ordinary womanhood than of an individual’s unique destiny.

Subilia takes her inspiration from photographic material, and the novel moves along as if turning the pages of a photo album. The plot is revealed by locations and faces: the house, the market, the coastline, tourist spots, Gaza, Saint George’s Monastery, the Dead Sea, Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem, the husband, the expat community, the gardener, the groups of children, a friendly paediatrician… The author takes care not to unsettle the reader, sketching out a possible reality without shattering its fragility. Just like the flowers that bloom at the end of the novel, astonishing the wife in her garden that has sprung up from nothing, from the tiniest speck, in the hands of a pious and patient old man.

Text by Alice Bottarelli

Éditions Zoé
Translation rights
Laure Pécher,
Publication date
August 2022


Anne-Sophie Subilia

The Swiss-Belgian author Anne-Sophie Subilia lives in Lausanne (Switzerland), where she was born in 1982. She studied French literature and history at the University of Geneva. Moreover, she graduated from the Bern Academy of Arts in literary writing. She writes for joint publications, magazines, radio, as well as for the stage with the piece Hyperborée, a performance which was inspired by a navigation along the Greenlandic coasts. Poet and novelists, Subilia is the author of L’Épouse (Zoé, August 2022), abrase (Empreintes, 2021, Pro Helvetia creation grant), Neiges intérieures (Zoé, 2020), Les hôtes (Paulette éditrice, 2018), Qui-vive (Paulette éditrice, 2016), Parti voir les bêtes (Zoé, 2016), and Jours d’agrumes (L’Aire 2013), which was awarded the 2014 ADELF-AMOPA prize.

Photo: Romain Guélat