The Dictator’s Wife by Freya Berry

Reviewed by Gail McDonald

The Dictator’s Wife is set in the town of Poarta, capital of the fictitious country Yanussia, in eastern Europe under the dictatorship of Constantin Popa the country’s executive president. However, according to the author Freya Berry, the story, although it is fiction, is ‘heavily rooted in fact ‘ after she spent a large amount of time in eastern Europe researching similar ‘nebulous and elusive ‘ communist countries to bring a sense of authenticity to the book.

The dictator became famous for being the man who ‘put on a different two thousand dollar suit each day and burned it each night in case the fabric was poisoned.’  He had allegedly embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars from the country but he was dead – murdered during protests of 1989.  The extent of his crimes of money laundering, fraud, bribery, corruption and obstruction of justice is highlighted as a focus for the trial.

The Dictator’s Wife Marija Popa, also referred to as the Black Widow, is a fascinating character who was raised in an orphanage and taken in by a family who already had a daughter, Ecaterina. The family were wealthy and founded the famed Iubita empire, a confectionary company run by Marija herself. The company which, under Marija’s control, employed only women to work in the factory.  This was connected to a program Marija developed called Movement for a Million Children to ensure the population of Yanussia increased and she was awarded the title of Little Mother of Yanussia.

The trial of the Dictator’s Wife is an attempt to hold her accountable for the lost art, jewellery and money that disappeared during her husband’s time as the executive president, during which he impoverished the country and terrorised the people. The trial is to examine how she continues to live an expensive lifestyle on a meagre income and to face serious corruption charges that carried the death penalty.

The lawyer Christian Pavel, who is heading her defence team, was born in Yanussia and speaks the local language and appears to have a special relationship with the Black Widow, having met her at Cambridge when they were younger.  The other members of the defence team are Jude, a senior associate and Laura, a junior lawyer who was also born in Yanussia. The Black Widow is placed under house arrest and as result the legal team is forced to live in the house with her so they can prepare her defence.

An element of intrigue is added to the story as Laura uses her spare time to search for the truth of the involvement of her own family with the Black Widow and the factory which made a special ‘sweetheart’ confectionery, given freely to all the employees. Laura is trying to discover why her parents hurriedly left Yanussia when she was a child and through her investigation uncovers the secret of the sweet factory – a secret that she keeps, never disclosing the truth.

Throughout the book, Marija is portrayed as a manipulative and deceptive character who uses the people around her and as the story progresses you discover that she has always done this to get her own way and continues this with her legal team.

The characters in the book are complex – equally flawed and intriguing.

An interesting book that was sometimes a little difficult to follow but it is all tied up neatly at the end.

Freya Berry studied English Literature at Trinity College Cambridge and worked as a financial and political journalist at Reuters and then Daily Mail. The Dictator’s Wife is her debut novel inspired by the close observation of the wives of some of the world’s most powerful leaders.

The Dictator’s Wife

[2022]

by Freya Berry

Hachette

ISBN 978 14722 7631 5

$32.99; 416pp

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