My Review of "The Widow" by Fiona Barton
I was drawn to this book by the publisher's claim that it was the next "Gone Girl" and for fans of "The Girl on the Train". It has also been highly recommended all over Twitter so it had a lot to live up to! I liked the clever title - a short, plain noun which carries huge connotations whether it be of older women dressed head to foot in black or grieving emotional figures of pity and sympathy. Fiona Barton's widow is neither of these things.
Jean Taylor is not yet 40 when her husband Glen gets knocked down in the road and killed. Her one line response, "I was glad he'd gone, no more of his nonsense," immediately creates intrigue and a sense that there is much more going on here than first meets the eye. She has spent the last few years hiding from the world who believe Glen to have abducted and murdered a child. She has spent the last few years defending her husband from accusations of molestation and child pornography. Was he guilty? Did she really know nothing of his illegal computer activity? Has she remained quiet and dutiful to protect him or because he was innocent?
DI Bob Sparks has been part of Jean's life for the last three years, although she suspects his presence will "disappear with you Glen". He is obsessed with the disappearance of a two year old Bella and the potential involvement Glen Taylor had with it. He is determined to solve the case and see Glen in prison, therefore Glen's death is a huge complication and all he can hope is that it finally leaves Jean free to tell the truth.
Kate Waters is a reporter desperate to get the next big headline, secure her place as a lead journalist and win recognition from her male colleagues. She is a woman with a hidden agenda -game plan; a kind, caring exterior masking a manipulative and selfish interior. Along with DI Sparks she hopes to coerce Jean into telling her exactly what she did know about her husband and how much she really knew of his guilt. Can she find out exactly what did happen to Bella now Glen is dead?
This is a psychological thriller with a difference. It is an exploration of the hidden character in a murder investigation. It puts the spotlight on the peripheral characters who are never usually given a voice. It looks at what happens after the main event when the mask slips, when the partners of the criminals are left to come to terms with the knowledge that their husbands are monsters. The reader is already presented with the main facts - it is not their job to particularly to solve the crime here, but rather work out who to believe and if in fact anyone is truly what they claim to be.
Barton uses the popular device of alternate voices for each chapter. We follow "the widow", "the detective" and "the reporter". I liked these honest headings. The narrative flips between present day (2010) back to the disappearance of Bella in 2006 and then jumps between 2007 and 2008 as the investigation and court hearing of Glen proceeds. The chapters are short which keeps the novel moving at a good pace and the disrupted chronology, use of flashbacks and different perspectives creates intrigue and suspense. Each chapter ends with a cliffhanger or a hint about the truth.
What's compelling is that each narrator is unreliable. Everyone has an agenda. The reader is never sure who to trust or of what each of them is really capable.
Jean is a quiet, shy woman; comfortable in Glen's shadow and unquestioning in her role as a dedicated housewife, totally dependent on Glen with each decision she made and action she took. She refers to his computer habits as "his nonsense." Is she as naive as she appears? But then her asides such as "Secrets are dangerous things....I had to keep his as well as mine," and confessions like "I had never been a liar...with Glen it was easy," imply that actually maybe Jean isn't quite as weak or naive as she appears. In fact she too has some hidden secrets which show her to be obsessive and a little unhinged. Her behaviour following Glen's death switches between a grieving widow who can't accept the truth about Glen and that of someone slightly unhinged and dangerously obsessed. Jean's hidden fixation with her childlessness adds a captivating twist to the plot. I also like the way she becomes addicted to ringing in to chat shows everyday as a different person and relishes not being known by who you are married to and without being judged. Barton has a real talent for writing these almost throwaway remarks which actually suggest something much more sinister, pitiable and deeper. Jean appears simple but in fact as the story unravels she is shown to be someone with whom the reader feels conflicted towards. At the end I wasn't sure whether she was likeable, whether she deserved pity or sympathy, whether her actions were right or wrong. It was a great position to be left in.
One of the main themes in the novel is obsession. Through the flashbacks we see Glen's obsession is "getting even with the police." He has an unsettling confidence and smugness which clouds the reader's judgement. Is he a clever criminal covering his tracks or is he a proud, innocent man of integrity that refuses to be used as a convenient pawn by the police? Is he an innocent man seeking revenge on the police or playing them? Is he a good, nurturing, supportive husband or is he an overpowering controlling figure?
Kate is obsessed with getting the top headline. She is driven by sales and her pushy editor. She is calculating and underhand. Jean observes that "she keeps using my name. Like a nurse. Or a conman."
DI Sparks is obsessed with the disappearance of Bella and finding out what happened to her. He is convinced of Glen's guilt. He can't get beyond this. His whole life is about work and he is continuously making personal sacrifices in order to trap Glen.
This is a novel about deception, lies, secrets and appearances. It is a novel about love - whether it is misdirected, misunderstood or confused with duty and obligation. It is an exploration of how people present themselves, what is real and what is pretence. Barton keeps you guessing throughout the whole novel and the ending has some surprising twists and revelations.
I liked it. The language is very straightforward and full of pace. Barton writes fluently and builds characters succinctly. The narrative moves swiftly between characters keeping you engaged and carrying you through the story with ease. It is a light read with all the key elements of a satisfying thriller. It takes a slightly different viewpoint from other thrillers and I liked that there were no particular heroes or villains or even massively likeable characters. I think this matched Barton's aim to focus on the background figures in a high profile case who are often voiceless or forgotten about when in fact their reaction to the events, and even their knowledge of events, is more interesting and intriguing.
Thank you to NetGalley for the free copy of this novel in return for a fair and honest review.
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