Author: Fiona Barton
Publisher: Bantam Press, fiction
The buzz in the trade has for quite some time now been that Fiona Barton’s debut novel The Widow is destined to be the next The Girl On The Train, a book that has not left the bestseller lists since it was published last year.
Like its author Paula Hawkins, Barton is also a former journalist. She says that for a long time she harboured no particular ambition to be a novelist but in interview with the Sunday Times explained what got her started: “I had this very simple idea about what a woman knew and did not know about her husband, plus what she might not want to believe and what she might then cover up. It’s also about how bad things happen to ordinary people and how ordinary people in turn are affected by extraordinary results.”
The woman in question is Jean Taylor, married at 17 to Glen, a man who for her exudes a certain amount of glamour, as he is older, working and ambitious. Many of the things that appeal to Jean about her husband are unlikely to appeal to many readers – while she luxuriates in his strength and decisiveness, readers will recognise a control freak who uses the “my little princess” approach to disguise what amounts to bullying. Nonetheless, Jean and Glen appear to be happy, even when Glen loses his job at the bank and becomes a delivery driver with self-deluding big plans to start his own business.
And then a toddler goes missing. Bella is playing in her front garden when she simply disappears.
Clearly she has been abducted. Without a trace. The police investigation finally focuses on three men, of whom Glen is one. But when the book opens, he is already dead, run over by a bus. And there is a reporter at Jean’s door wanting to know what she knows, hoping that now Glen is gone she will finally reveal the truth. If she knows it.
In many ways The Widow is a dark book and the world it inhabits is a deeply unpleasant one. An internet café where the windows are blacked out so that seedy men can view pornography, including child pornography, in anonymity; the sale of hardcore magazines from the back of cars; chat rooms with an unhealthy (and criminal) emphasis on children – this is the world that Jean dismisses as her husband’s “nonsense”. But the question remains, was his “nonsense” simply a distasteful fantasy or did it spill over into real life, into abduction, into murder?
The Widow is told in short sections with multiple viewpoints over a period of four years. Jean’s sections are told in the first person. Each section is dated and the subject of it clearly stated: “The Detective”, “The Journalist”, “The Husband”, “The Widow”, “The Mother”. I mention this because the result of this demarcation is great clarity, a feature often lacking in books that use multiple dates and narrators and I have a deep personal dislike of scrabbling back to put bits of the narrative together.
There is no danger of that here.
Barton’s characters are compelling and clearly drawn. Her journalistic background is clearly employed in her portrayal of Kate Waters, a dogged newshound who uses her well developed and honed skills of empathy to get Jean to talk. The ethics of this are interesting as Kate is obviously “playing” Jean to get the story but is at the same time far more appealing than the reporters who bang on the door, hustle and insult.
Do the ends justify the means? And to what extent is the press entitled to intrude into the private lives of “ordinary people” to get a story? What exactly is the “public interest” in a case of personal tragedy?
The press and media question appears in slightly different guise in the little girl’s mother, Dawn. Initially subject to online abuse for allowing her daughter to play in her front garden unsupervised, it is not long before she is learning to use the press to advantage in an attempt to increase pressure on the police to solve the disappearance and also to seek revenge on Glen, whom she is convinced is guilty.
This reaches its climax in a public showdown clearly staged for the cameras. Again the question hangs, is this ethical?
In many ways the most sympathetic character is the detective, Inspector Sparkes, who is drawn deeper and deeper into the case until solving it becomes an obsession. Forced by events to stand back and look at his work dispassionately, he realises that his obsession has actually impeded the investigation, not helped it. It is a surprisingly moving revelation.
The Widow is an out and out thriller and an absolute page-turner. But it is, I think, also a little more than that. Barton explores a number of very contemporary concerns here: the relationship between the police and the press, the role of the media, police entrapment, online security and of course, on a deeply personal level, just how much the woman at the heart of the book knew about her husband and how much she was willing to cover up. Is Glen Taylor a loving and protective husband or a delusionary child killer? Flaws abound, no one is quite what they seem and I suspect tens of thousands of readers are about to be as hooked in as I was.