The Dictator’s Wife by Freya Berry

engrossing | atmospheric | elegant

what it says on the cover …

I learned early in life how to survive. A skill that became vital in my position.

I was given no power, yet I was expected to hold my own with the most powerful man in the country.

My people were my children. I stood between him and them.

I am not the person they say I am.
I am not my husband.
I am innocent.

Do you believe me?

Visceral and thought provoking, haunting and heartbreaking, The Dictator’s Wife will hold you in its grip until its powerful conclusion and keep you turning the pages long into the night…

PUBLISHED: 17th February 2022
SHELF: Thriller | Suspense
AUTHOR: Freya Berry
PUBLISHER: Headline Publishing Group
FORMATS: Hardback | Kindle | AudioBook

Thank you to Jessica Farrugia @JessFarrugiaPR for inviting me to be part of the exciting cover reveal and blog tour for
#TheDictatorsWife by @FreyaBBooks and for sending me a gorgeous super-proof copy to read.
(published by @headlinepg)

The wife of a toppled dictator stands trial for her husband’s crimes. The world will finally know the truth.

But whose?

Young London lawyer Laura Lăzărescu has been sent to her parents’ homeland of Yanussia for the most important defence case of her life: the trial of Maria Popa, wife of Constantin, the murdered dictator who created fear and division in the impoverished Eastern European country, hiding untold riches for himself and his family. As the case unfold, Laura is drawn into Maria’s web – and although her traumatised parents forbade her to go, the pull of the past is strong, and the secrets Laura uncovers threaten to derail all that she holds dear.

my review

Where to start?!  With the enticing cover design design or the darkly compelling story within? With the sublime and eloquent writing or the considered application of stark political truths? Or perhaps the exquisite balance of clawing suspense with moments of raw emotional poignancy?  You’ll have to forgive me now if I’m gushy and effusive about The Dictator’s Wife … it’s a book that demands a whole new star-rating system.  To try and encapsulate my feelings in a single soundbite is quite the challenge; I think my best summary would be that The Dictator’s Wife is a superbly engrossing and atmospheric masterpiece that holds the reader in velvet vice-like grip from beginning to end.

Before I get into my thoughts on the story itself, I just want to touch on the cover artwork; an inspired approach in graphic storytelling that’s sure to command attention from the shelves.  The stylised image portrays a woman with elegance, style, and poise, and though she may be faceless there’s no doubt about her unapologetically direct gaze. Her very facelessness depicts the enigma of this story perfectly; inviting the reader to objectify and judge its enchantingly charismatic persona.

The primary plot of The Dictator’s Wife is set in 1993/4, although the book itself opens to a chapter in 2018 where we first meet one of the two main characters; Laura Lăzărescu, as she’s thrust back into a turbulent and pivotal time in her life. This is a scene-setting chapter, with twenty-five year old recollections passing between two characters whose relationship fizzes with an affectionate familiarity and abrasive mistrust.  This chapter filled me with a sense of the enormity of the story that was to follow – there’s a lot going in these early scenes; implied frictions, fathomless connections, shaded actions – and it immediately commanded my full and focused attention.  

“Our client was a hypnotic blend of Joan of Arc and Imelda Marcos; both goddess and she-devil, princess and tyrant, martyr and uber-bitch.”

With satisfying pace, the book quickly moves to the beating heart of the story; junior lawyer, Laura’s arrival in Yanussia with her boss, senior partner Christian Pavel, and Jude Greenwood a senior associate – the legal team charged with defending Marija Popa, wife of the ruthlessly covetous dictator, Constantin Popa. Whilst Yanussia is a fictional setting, the author has situated this small, Eastern Bloc country between Romania, Hungary and Serbia, within the influential shadow of Russia.  A beautifully rounded narrative brings the people, streets and culture of this shrouded, down-trodden country to the very fore of the imagination, creating a powerfully corrupting and chilling familiarity.

The dynamic between the Laura and Marija bears the hallmarks and intensity of a smouldering paso doble –  it’s sharp, dramatic, confrontational, and all the while, uneasily respectful. Their intent focus on one another enhances the persistently claustrophobic and emotionally-laden plot. However, there is a third woman’s story completing this toxic venn-diagram … Laura’s mother, a woman whom we learn about through beatific and childhood recollections, and the heartbreakingly raw clarity of unburdened secrets. It’s an exploitable weakness and one that the mercurial Marija doesn’t hesitate to capitalise on.

“How different, how very different my life would have been had I returned to my bed and lain there, safe! Some people believe the world splits in two at each decision we make: at these forked moments time stretches thin, and we might see our future if we dared.”

Incongruous against the highbrow political and legal tensions I felt I was glimpsing tendrils of familiar fairytales … the darker originals, not the gaudy Disney interpretations. The enticing abode promising sanctuary to lost children. Ripe and glossy fruits insinuating violation. An entrapped beauty watching for her rescuer. An exquisite, bespoke dress gifted to a young woman seeking a new life. It shouldn’t work … but it absolutely does.  Were the brothers Grimm writing today, I can’t help thinking they’d be carrying Freya Berry on their shoulders through the book stacks – the sublime storytelling, the atmospheric and dream-like scenes, the clarity and obscurity, the sensation of having been carried into a world so foreign yet so vivid, never quite at ease, and always, always rooting for the heroine.  

“‘So, here you are in the monster’s lair. Is it so bad after all?’ She smiled at my confusion. ‘That is the trouble with stories. They are so easy. I am the wicked witch, the whore queen. Everybody knows that, and who examines whether what they already know is true?'”

Chapter forty six is where the scales fall away.  The big reveal. The parting of clouds.  The breath-taking climax.  In the most discomfortingly conspired act between paper and music, I had just started to read this chapter when my iTunes shuffled to play Carmina Burana: O Fortuna. My bath water may have been piping hot but the uncanny coincidence gave me chilly goosebumps … if you don’t know the track, here’s a clip.  I don’t think there’s ever been a more perfect pairing of music and plot. 

The Dictator’s Wife has had me totally in its thrall from beginning to end.  Its story stands apart with its unique originality, seamlessly weaving the intellectually stimulating topics of femininity, power and control with the emotional complexities of regret, loss and human connections.  Both moving and compelling, the author taps in to her readers’ emotions, drawing on a desire to be thrilled and appalled, cosseted and appeased.

There is a sophisticated eloquence to the vocabulary, prose and phrasing of the author’s writing, reflecting a fierce intelligence.  Her almost dream-like lyrical cadence and immersive storytelling draw the reader inexorably into the pages with an irresistible magnetism, and having read the acknowledgements at the end, the depth and integrity of Freya Berry’s research leaps out of the story with a retrospective energy. 

Are you getting the impression I enjoyed The Dictator’s Wife?  I certainly hope so!  This is a book I’ll be thinking about and recommending for a long time to come.  My heart-felt congratulations to Freya Berry for penning and creating such an extraordinary and unforgettable debut. And enormous congratulations to Headline for snapping up this superb author. I heartily look forward to the next novel.


author bio

photo from

Freya Berry is twenty-nine, and The Dictator’s Wife is her debut novel, inspired by the close observation of the wives of some of the world’s dictators and strongmen. She received a double starred first in English from Trinity College, Cambridge where she studied English Literature.

Freya worked for several years as a financial and political journalist at Reuters and then the Daily Mail, and her writing has appeared in the TLS, the Guardian, and the Independent among others. She also works as an investigative corporate researcher. Her time is split between London and the Welsh coast, where she spends an inadvisable amount of time in the sea.

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