Back in July last year, I wrote a blog post about foreshadowing, which including the noteworthy examples of Harry Potter (novels and movies), video game Life is Strange, and the captivating psychological thriller The Girl on The Train. Written after the success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins was a fast paced, genuinely interesting novel about the divorced, alcoholic Rachel and her connection to the occupants of a house she passes everyday on the train to London. I read it relatively quickly—as quickly as a slow reader like myself can—and it was one of my best reads of 2015.
What does this have to do with my blog post, dear readers? Well, I’ve just finished reading a book that is what you’d likely call the 2016 equivalent to Girl on the Train. The Widow by Fiona Barton, released earlier this year, was a fascinating, gripping read that I finished on-and-off in just under two weeks. For someone who took months to finish On Writing and gave up on Lolita a mere hundred and fifty pages in, I find this an amazing feat. The Widow is written from the point of view of multiple characters; mainly main character Jean Taylor (the titular widow), detective Bob Sparkes, journalist Kate Waters, the missing girl’s mother Dawn Elliott, and a myriad of others. Jean’s story is written in first person present tense, and the rest are in third person, and past or present depending on whether it’s the past (2006–the lead up to the modern day) or present (2010, the modern day). As stated in the blurb, average housewife and sometime hairdresser Jean Taylor’s life is rocked when her husband is accused of the disappearance of the young, sprightly girl that is Bella Elliott. The newspapers set out to ruin the lives of Jean and her husband Glen, despite no sign of young Bella’s body or whereabouts. But everything changes with Glen’s recent death. Is Jean telling the media and the police everything she knows about Glen, and will she reveal the truth?
I was off to a slow start with The Widow, but as the pace picked up, I couldn’t put it down and read the last 100 or so pages in one night. I found Jean an interesting, unreliable narrator, and the foreshadowing was done a lot better than Girl on the Train. The characters are realistic, not just 1D, and you can connect to most of them. Due to Barton’s work as a journalist, her portrayal of Kate Waters and the journalism industry in full was done very well. Despite Kate appearing a bit of a caricature—the Lois Lane, dying for a story type—she still helped with a good portrayal of how horrible, crude and over the top the media, in particular British media, can be. Their crazy, dubious behaviour regarding such cases as the News of the World scandal (phone-hacking) and everything regarding Princess Diana—it’s clearly showcased in this novel. Barton doesn’t spare her industry anything, and shows just how absurd they can be, what they’ll do for a story, etc. Having worked in the industry myself, I can agree with the portrayal. Barton even does shout-outs to her publications.
My main problem with The Widow was its portrayal of the internet, and the oh-so-dubious chat-rooms that even computer illiterate characters like Dawn Elliott can easily seem to access. I’m particularly incensed by the use of the term “avatar” in place of “profile picture”, since I haven’t heard a single person under the age of 50 use the word “online avatar” seriously. Seriously, it felt like the chat-rooms were out of an episode of Law and Order or, God forbid, CSI. Seriously, chat-rooms like Barton has described would definitely be on the dark web, things that pedophiles and other scum of the earth would freely converse on, but she seems to think it’s as simple as Googling “online chat-room” and voila! If you did Google them, you’d most likely get sites that will infect you with enough malware to actually want an Indian/Pakistani phone scammer. Places like Habbo Hotel, Omegle, or even Reddit subreddits are real-life chat-room type hubs, but do not work in the same way Barton describes. It’s nice to see she thanks a computer expert in her acknowledgements, but the whole crime show cliche really irks me in modern-day crime thrillers.
Other than that minor annoyance, The Widow was a generally interesting read, and the ending was not a let down at all. The open ending left two possibilities for Jean, both as intriguing as the other. Despite Glen appearing as responsible for Bella’s disappearance, I was still left guessing as to whether he did it—or was it Bella’s real-life father or the suspicious guy at Glen’s truck company? Overall, despite being just over 300 pages long, I still wanted more, and that’s the point of a good psychological thriller: to keep you reading and make you want more. For that, The Widow was a great read.