Lily has been adrift since the age of seven, when her mother died in a car accident and her father sent her to live with her grandmother in an eerie subterranean house in Colorado. She attaches herself to Kate, a richer, prettier girl with indulgent parents. But her unacknowledged jealousy emerges when she gets the chance to sleep with Kate's boyfriend at a drunken party thrown by a student who has just been called up to fight. The war's dislocating effects are neatly conveyed by a scene in which the young men destroy a sports car, symbol of the affluent existence which has proved powerless to protect them.
Lily's flight to Mexico, towards a sinister orphanage which trades in babies, confirms her status as an outsider. Yet it is not until the arrival of Turner, who does not realise that he has made Lily pregnant, that the lyrical prose begins to display the darker undertones which make this more than a novel about a bunch of mixed-up college kids.
Turner has arrived without money and in an unreliable car, so he soon finds himself as helpless as Lily. He casually involves himself in the baby trade in order to raise the cash to fix his car, agreeing to meet a boat full of infants and children sent from Cuba for illegal adoption in the United States. Driving across Mexico with his human cargo, he is too scared even to seek medical treatment for a badly injured child: 'Carl, the little boy with the injured leg and the injured face, was okay. His mouth was open like the mouth of a caught fish, bubbling . . . Could you die from a leg?'
In successive scenes of mounting horror, Spalding shows that you do not have to be bad to behave like Turner, just weak and thoughtless. Still broke, he reluctantly agrees to another illegal scheme to cross the border with forged papers which claim Lily as his wife and a little Mexican boy as their son. This scheme lands them in serious trouble from which even Kate, blundering into the situation with all the artless confidence of a rich white girl, cannot extract them.
The conclusion of The Paper Wife is a bleak and shocking reversal - not of fortune, for Lily has never enjoyed much luck, but of role. Suffering from the after-effects of an illegal abortion, Lily gives up her last remaining badge of identity - the forged documents which make her, at least on paper, Turner's wife - in order that he and Kate can get across the border. Her sacrifice seems natural to them, for her secretiveness and lack of assurance have always set her apart; the novel's tragedy is not so such that these so-called friends abandon Lily in a foreign country, but the meekness with which she accepts their desertion.
Spalding's novel is a brilliant, disturbing meditation on the fragility of identity. It has the pace and terse style of a thriller, while its low-key ending is presented in effortlessly laconic sentences which underline the inevitability, as well as the horror, of Lily's eventual fate.
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