Dangerous Knowledge in the Garden: Review of The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey
Jake Casella Brookins
The Echo Wife. Sarah Gailey. Tor Books, 2021.
Cloning has been used for horrific effect back to at least Brave New World (1932), focusing on its “unnaturalness” and the uncanniness of the doppelgänger, and was foreshadowed in earlier writing like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Other works, like Orphan Black (2013-2017), while not turning a blind eye to the weirdness of the technology, have used cloning to examine possibilities of identity. Sarah Gailey’s newest novel, The Echo Wife, draws from both approaches, with a quiet emphasis on gender roles. Moving stealthily between sci-fi thriller, mystery, and horror, it begins with a very consciously performative femininity—an uncomfortable and expensive gown—and ends with a possibly liberating, definitely disturbing vision of gender-swapped patriarchy.
The novel opens with Dr. Evelyn Caldwell, our protagonist and narrator, receiving a prestigious award for her work in cloning and going about her solitary and mono-focused life. A brilliant scientist, she has pioneered a method of cloning that can create adult near-replicas in a matter of weeks (though the tone is wildly different, the cloning technology of The Echo Wife recalls The Sixth Day ). Still living out of boxes after her recent divorce, Evelyn is contacted by her ex-husband’s distraught new fiance, and quickly finds herself entangled in a game of subterfuge, murder, and—you guessed it—clones.
I might have been primed for it by the private investigator of Gailey’s Magic for Liars (2019), but there are elements of The Echo Wife that quickly put me in a mind of a murder mystery. There’s little ambiguity about the central murder, but Evelyn’s narration has a way of highlighting certain details as clues, and a habit of occasional and tantalizing obfuscation. In pivoting away from revealing critical information, Gailey prompts the reader to suspect multiple and solvable mysteries in Evelyn’s current predicament, and in her past.
Where the novel really comes into its own, however, is the moment that its genre shadings darken into a kind of psychological horror. It may vary for each reader, but for me the shift happened when Evelyn lets slip that her current, very science-fictional problem—figuring out how to help her own clone deal with the murder of their mutual (ex-)husband—is a recapitulation of Evelyn’s traumatic family history. Suddenly, all the wholesomely Agatha-Christie-like clues I’d been gleaning are transfigured instead into ominous hints about Evelyn’s actions, past, and mental state. It’s a shocking but subtle twist, changing the way the whole novel works, and making it very effectively creepy—I was reminded a lot of Shirley Jackson in how Gailey uses spare prose and implication to build horror. The last line, in particular, feels distinctly Jacksonion: you can read it as either really disturbing, or as a strange but happy ending. I don’t know if it was an influence or not, but I kept thinking of C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen (1988) for its use of cloning to create an intensely internal, even claustrophobic psychological drama; there’s also some mild body-horror in The Echo Wife, oblique but disturbing discussion of childhood abuse, and a Bluebeard-esque murder reveal.
Gailey’s writing in The Echo Wife is really quite spare on external descriptions, focusing inwards on Evelyn instead. There are only four characters to speak of—only Evelyn and her clone, Martine, get much development—and, outside of a few descriptions of internal scenes at Evelyn and Martine’s houses and the lab, there’s very little detail. One effect of this is to make the novel curiously flexible in time and place—leaving aside one or two references to smartphones, it could plausibly take place anywhere in the next (or even last) half-century, and practically anywhere on the planet. The stripped-down style compliments the psychological thriller vibe that comes to dominate the novel, but there are points where I found the lack of detail off-putting. Refusing to commit to a specified setting (“the city”) works in some ways, but when we as readers are extrapolating, trying to figure out what’s going on in both science-fictional and mystery-solving modes, the absence of a larger setting makes it very difficult to figure out the limits of our investigation. When it comes to things like “covering up a murder” or “constructing an identity for an illegal clone,” you kind of need to know more details about what world we’re operating in.
Other blindspots in The Echo Wife are more ambiguous, and I had a hard time deciding if they were indicators of Evelyn’s possibly amoral character or just shaky worldbuilding. Her occasional unreliability as a narrator is sometimes hard to reconcile: it’s a first-person voice that isn’t framed as being recorded or told to anyone, so while some moments of narrative unreliability work as character detail—Evelyn avoiding things in her own mind—others break the fourth wall in ways that do the novel no favors. The largest blindspot is an ethical one: in our current world, anti-abortion politics have dramatically impacted the relatively innocuous field of stem cell research, for instance, so it’s a huge and unexplained jump to a world in which fully functional humans are legally treated as disposable tissue if they happen to be clones. The novel echoes Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) in its investigation of the humanity of “artificial” beings, and, appropriately, Blade Runner 2049’s (2017) illogical but sexually charged obsession with fertility, but is so much closer to our current reality that its callous treatment of clones is harder to chalk up as “normal, in this world”—perhaps less so, if one thinks of them as stand-ins for and critique of laboratory animals.
More practical science fictional gaps are fairly easy to gloss over—we get reasonable handwaves and somewhat gruesome detail on how the clones are emotionally and physically “conditioned” to resemble their originals, but no glimpse of how they learn to speak or tie their shoes, for instance—but a little more foundation to the speculative elements would have made it easier to immerse myself in the novel, and to figure out how far characters are deviating from this world’s moral norms. Other details—like Evelyn worrying about her lab’s budget, when she’s established that they are providing live “assassination dummies” to the military—also break suspension of disbelief, but are relatively easy to move past; The Echo Wife is not really “about” clones or cloning, but uses clones to think about nature versus nurture and the problem of other people creating their “ideal” versions of someone—Martine is, at least initially, the “perfect domestic” version of Evelyn—bringing to mind Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil (1976) and The Stepford Wives (1972).
The Echo Wife most clearly finds its feet after it becomes clear what it is not—it’s not a mystery to be solved (although a few mysteries are solved), and it doesn’t have a clearly defined arc. It’s a novel of a professional woman’s persistence that entangles that act with horror. But it’s also a horror story about traumatic repetition, whose resolution is literally about successfully burying problems rather than dealing with them. That bivalence is perfectly balanced by the final section of the novel. It’s a sexlessly and solipsistically incestuous denouement—appropriate that The Echo Wife has her Narcissus—that sees Evelyn taking on the roles of her father and ex-husband, acting as Adam (or maybe God) to an Eve formed of her own flesh. Do we read this as a redemptive tale, a story of Evelyn’s success? Or are we meant to lean in to the deeply creepy aspect of the finish? I don’t quite know how to read it, much as I enjoyed it, and that ambiguity may be The Echo Wife’s strongest suit.
Originally from the Pennsylvania Appalachians, Jake Casella Brookins (he/him) now lives in Chicago. He is an SF reviewer and independent scholar, and runs the Positron site for speculative fiction book clubs and other literary events in the Chicagoland area. When not making coffee (professionally), he is probably riding his bike (amateurishly). Book ramblings and occasional bread experiments can be found on his blog.
This review was self-commissioned by the author, who is also an ARB editor, in consultation with the ARB editorial collective. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Tor.