The opening pages of Natasha Bell’s novel Exhibit Alexandra, show a frantic husband, Marc Southwood, in a state of panic after reporting his wife Alexandra missing. A few lines into the second paragraph, we realize something: it isn’t Marc who is telling this story, it’s Alexandra herself.
But how can that be, if she isn’t on the scene? In her own words, she is being held from Marc and her two daughters against her will by a man she describes as “not conventionally attractive in this wasted form, but he’s also not the dead-eyed anxious type you’d see cast in this role in a film.”
What role is that, exactly? Kidnapper, torturer, serial killer? Bell is very good in allowing us to fret enough, thinking about what awaits Alexandra in the elaborate chamber of horrors we have already imagined her in.
However the more Alexandra talks, the less we understand. It becomes clear that she is an unreliable narrator, she has to be, because there’s no way she can know what Marc is thinking, what he’s doing, how he and their daughters are hurting from her absence.
Alexandra is a former artist who gave up her ambitions when she married Marc, settling into a comfortable existence of wife, mother and part-time academic in York. She didn’t have any enemies, no known ones anyway. An alcoholic mother with early onset Alzheimer’s who embarrassed her at their wedding, and an old friend from Alexandra’s university days are the extent of her out-of-town connections. The police are at a loss, and tragically, so is Marc. They are happy, in love, the perfect couple. This can’t be happening, not to them.
Her unreliability as a narrator appears of no great importance except the musings of a scared woman kept in a locked room not knowing what awaits her.
Alexandra at times doesn’t seem to behave much like a frightened woman, many times openly defying her captor, daring him to inflict some kind of punishment. At one point she throws a food tray at him, and he wrestles her to the ground until he finally restrains her. Another day, she greets him naked, legs spread apart, wanting to make him uncomfortable and succeeding. This is not what he wants from her and Alexandra knows it.
This is only a handful of triumphant moments for her. The man has the upper hand almost every time. Shows her videos of Marc pleading for her return, tells her that a female neighbor has been to their house which arouses Alexandra’s suspicions that the woman has made a move on her husband, shows her a newspaper clipping of her daughter winning a math award, but tells her she can’t keep it. Those are the rules.
Instead of the plot revealing itself, it becomes more complex. Marc is conducting his own investigation into Alexandra’s disappearance, but we only know of his progress through her point of view. Is she telling us the whole truth? We think so. Why would she lie? She is after all, the victim in all of this, isn’t she? He refuses to think she is dead, even when the police rescue her bag surrounded by a copious amount of her blood. Marc will never give up hope because in doing so, he would be failing her.
Bell gives us more questions than answers, leading to a massive buildup and a resolution that probably very few readers will see coming. Only those who pay particular attention to the novel’s title will perhaps figure everything out before the big reveal. They may read it fractured, however.
Agatha Christie was known for pulling off endings that stunned readers, particularly when we knew the clues were there all along. In Exhibit Alexandra, every bit of information Bell gives is important. Her tendency at oftentimes making Marc’s (or rather Alexandra’s) flashbacks somewhat long, dragged out and overly detailed is done for a reason. Either to distract us or to point us in the right direction, the answers are there if we look close enough and not allow ourselves to be deterred by one-way mirrors.
Marc finds letters written to his wife that point to a discontent with her life he wasn’t aware of. A desire for something, a space of her own. Was it possible Alexandra wasn’t as happy as she seemed? Was whatever she was hiding the reason she vanished?
Sherlock Holmes famously said, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” As Marc moves closer to the truth, we come to understand that everything we believed impossible is the solution. To solve the mystery of Alexandra’s disappearance, one must think outside the box and inside her mind to ask the ultimate question: Is this possible?
Exhibit Alexandra is much more than a missing wife and mother. More than her desperate husband refusing to give up and her claustrophobic surroundings in the company of an unnamed captor. In the end, some might see Natasha Bell’s novel about life imitating art or art imitating life. But as we look beyond the edges of it, what we truly see is that the novel is about distortion, a dissolve, the gradual split of an atom.
It’s about flying way too close to the sun.