Andrew Meehan (Head of Zeus, £18.99)

The tragic tale of Oscar Wilde has been told over and over again, but Andrew Meehan’s novel does it from the perspective of Wilde’s wife, Constance, opening with her living in Italy after her husband’s conviction for gross indecency. Taking her sons Vyvyan and Cyril out of the country to protect them from the scandal, she has renounced the name Wilde by deed poll and is now Constance Holland. “She has never been so happy. She has never been so bored.” She thinks she prefers Italy to motherhood – “Secretly, she is not always interested in her children” – but doesn’t seem very taken by the Italians either. As Wilde’s loyal friend Robbie Ross drops by for an unwelcome visit, she reflects on how her fateful first encounter with Oscar changed the course of her life.

In Meehan’s hands, Constance is complex and mercurial: as hard to pin down as she is to truly warm to. She seems to have had no friends or confidantes, and there’s a coldness to her, a jadedness that seems precocious in the 22-year-old who attends a lecture by Wilde in Piccadilly, but is more understandable once you’ve seen her awful family. Her main motivation in getting married was to escape them, and she seems as confined by Victorian strictness in general as by her immediate family, possessed of an inner wildness that leads to fantasies of being passed around a roomful of men “avid for her flesh”. She anticipates that as a married woman she will have an active sex life, and looks forward to it, suppressing her doubts about the timid, evasive Irishman she has chosen for a husband.

“She alternates, loyal & not,” Meehan writes, and ambivalence is one of the novel’s most prominent features. Like her honeymoon, which flits between bliss and boredom, Constance blows hot and cold, at times indifferent to her children, then, a few pages later, deciding they “had supplanted their father in her affections”. Unfortunately for her two boys, love to Constance, first and foremost, means Oscar, a man as complex as she is and even more deeply flawed.

As his wife and most perceptive critic, she quickly discerns that Oscar is two people. When he discourses in public, his eloquence “moved through her like a repellent liquid”, while in private he is “constrained & soggy-seeming … as unthreatening as a lovely cup of cocoa”. As time passes, his public self predominates, giving him the air of a caricature, and at his worst Constance can imagine herself “to be looking at a portrait in burnished oils of a bloated Napoleon surveying a battlefield”.

Divided, more or less, into a series of setpieces charting their relationship, The Mystery of Love lives up to its Wildean title, forensically examining the bond that endures in a marriage which is in almost every other way dysfunctional. And while it must be daunting to take on the master of the epigram, Meehan rises to the challenge, liberally dousing his text with irresistibly resonant and quotable passages.