The Watchful Wife

Suzanne Leal

The Watchful Wife
Allen & Unwin
4 July 2023

The Watchful Wife

Suzanne Leal

'Leal delivers an intriguing page-turner with emotional depth, nuance and moral complexity: The Watchful Wife is a truly gripping read from start to finish.' Mark Brandi

Raised by her severe parents in a punitive and authoritarian church, Ellen Wells is entirely unprepared for life in the modern world. When things become intolerable at home, she escapes and, striking out on her own, makes a completely new start.

Ellen lands a job as a teacher in a girls' school and gradually finds peace in that community and in her solitary life. To begin with, she is painfully shy, but when she meets Gordon, a fellow teacher, she responds with curiosity and, before long, pleasure. Gordon is kind and caring and their friendship slowly turns into a deep and fulfilling love, the kind Ellen never dreamed she would share. When she and Gordon marry, her parents decry their union, making her split from them absolute. But Gordon's mother and sister joyously welcome her to their family, and Ellen's quiet life is transformed into one filled with connection, love and laughter.

Three years later, a knock on the door changes everything. Two police officers have come to interrogate Gordon about a shocking crime. In an instant, Ellen's perfect life unravels.

Refusing to believe the allegations levelled against her husband, Ellen finds herself abandoned by all but her mother-in-law. In a world of swirling suspicion and accusations, Ellen will need to fight to prove her husband's innocence. But what will that cost her? And what will she discover about him along the way?


Ellen and her husband Gordon are high school English teachers. They met while working at the school where Ellen still teaches, but not long after they are married, Gordon moves to a new school for a promotion. Everything is going well for them both until, less than a year into the new job, Gordon is accused, via an anonymous note pushed under the principal’s door, of an appalling crime.

At first, though he is suspended immediately, Ellen and Gordon do not know of what he has been accused, or by whom. Ellen cannot believe kind, gentle Gordon has done anything wrong, so why would a member of their community accuse him of anything? Why would anyone accuse another person of something they did not do? Equally disturbing to consider, as Ellen must when the details of the allegations are revealed, is whether we can ever really know, or ever truly trust, anybody.

The Watchful Wife is a tense story about lies, deception, and how people construct their identities. It opens with the early morning arrival at Ellen and Gordon’s Sydney home of detectives from the Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Unit. It then jumps back to Ellen’s strict upbringing as the only child of devout members of the Free Church of Kirkton, and follows her gradual steps towards greater freedom, with the help of a few particularly caring teachers along the way. Even before she is estranged from her parents and church by her decision to marry outside her faith, Ellen’s unusual childhood has left her rather isolated, and there is little love or warmth in her life. However, she finds both in abundance with Gordon and his mother and sister.

This year several local crime writers have delved into deeply uncomfortable questions in unsettlingly everyday environments. While We Only Want What’s Best by Carolyn Swindell examined art and consent in the world of student dancers, The Watchful Wife takes the reader into the complex ecology of Australian schools. It’s a suspenseful, layered tale of lives suddenly derailed, and of the struggle to get those lives back on track.

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