An ab­so­lute page-turner

This is a thrill of a read that also raises im­por­tant ques­tions, about the me­dia, police en­trap­ment, and on­line se­cu­rity.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - e ie P star2@ thes­tar. com. my

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 back- ground 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.

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