Thursday, March 10, 2016

Book Review: THE WIDOW

Title: The Widow
Author: Fiona Barton
Publisher: NAL
Pages: 336

The publishers have likened this novel to The Girl on the Train. I have not read The Girl on the Train, but The Widow wasn’t quite as thrilling as I expected.

At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Jean Taylor’s husband, Glen, has been dead for a week and she’s greatly relieved. It is our cue that all was not well with this marriage or with the man.

Jean thinks that it is now time to put away the strain and live her life outside the shadow of his silences and his disapproval and disdain of her imperfections. Married at 19, the older and sophisticated Glen has always patronized her, remade her to be what he wants her to be. She is invisible, important only in relation to Glen.

Secrets were dangerous things, the author tells us. The discovery of a book with pictures of little children tells Glen that his wife too has her secrets. Even as Jean obsesses over babies, she writes anonymously to Dawn, telling her that she is to blame for losing her child.

Her inability to have children causes Jean to become obsessed with children, while Glen retreats into his own private space, spending long periods of time looking at porn on his computer. There comes a point when merely looking at porn is not enough, and Glen becomes an active participant in cyber sex. His perverseness increases.

When a two-year-old girl, Bella Elliott, is kidnapped, detective Bob Sparkes is assigned the case. When investigations lead the police to Glen, he denies the allegation. The police lure Glen with a false id in one of the chatrooms that he frequents and he falls for it. But the findings are not accepted as evidence by the court and Glen is acquitted for lack of evidence. He then sues the police for a quarter of a million pounds, on grounds of defamation, and wins. Try as they might, the police are unable to get concrete evidence against Glen. With each failure, Sparkes becomes increasingly more tormented and determined to find Bella. We keenly feel his frustration as Bella remains unfound years later.

The book is written from four points of view: the widow’s first person present tense account, and the third-person past tense accounts of Detective Bob Sparkes, reporter Kate Waters and Dawn Elliott, mother of Bella. The case is taken forward through the viewpoints of Sparkes and Kate. Certain days are presented to us from multiple points of view.

The widow’s account begins on June 9, 2010, a week after the death of Glen. It is the day on which reporter Kate Waters enters her home, intent on piecing together information about Glen. While he was alive, Glen refused to speak to the press. Kate hopes that his death will move the widow to speak.

Detective Bob Sparkes’ account begins earlier, from October 2, 2006.

The story goes back and forth in time, and you are left piecing the puzzle together in the strangest way possible.

Jean’s account takes us through her memories of life with Glen, and of her own staunch support of her husband. It consists very often of jerky sentences, often missing the pronoun, I, at the beginning. The style seems deceptively simple, until a word or a phrase sneaks up on you and you begin to pay attention. Towards the end, the tenor of her account changes so stealthily that we almost miss it.

The style of each account was different, and I quickly found myself warming to the detective’s PoV. I found the writing to be the strongest here perhaps because the crux of the story comes alive here. He is the only one who seems to be truly concerned about the child. Kate, although a mom of two, just wants her story.

Through the various accounts, we come away with a sense of the mother’s anguish, the media frenzy and the detective’s desperation. We also understand how people’s tragic stories become fodder for the press and the media. The book also cautions us about the murky world of online chatting and how one must be careful and fight against the tendency to give away too much information online. Like the people on buses who talk on their mobile phones about the breakup of their marriage or genital warts.

Fiona also brings out the pain of a childless woman, how she is willing to put up with the speculation, the examinations, the ultrasounds, the endless prodding. Also, the waking up still feeling the weight of a baby in my arms.

I also felt for Sparkes’ wife, Eileen. Even though she is only a minor character in the book, she makes her presence felt. Her husband’s busyness and seeming obsession with Bella’s case leave her with nothing to hold on to.

As the story went on, I felt a keen sense of fatigue, and sympathized with Sparkes’ inability to nail Glen. The conclusion, even though it wasn’t a twist by any means, felt welcome and offered a sense of closure.

Overall, I think the book would have been stronger if the author had chosen to give us the story in a chronological sequence. The frequent travelling back-and-forth in time began to get wearisome after a while and left me with a rather fractured view of the whole thing.

Still, a good book.

(I received a free digital copy of this book from First To Read.) 

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