The Widow | Fiona Barton | 2016 | Bantam Press | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book
Jean Taylor’s husband Glen died a few days ago, he fell under a bus outside the local supermarket. For the first time in so many years Jean is alone. Alone, that is, except for the army of journalists camped outside her front door. Glen’s death is big news. Everyone believes that years before Glen did the unthinkable, that he abducted a little girl. And now that he’s dead, the press are prepared to fight tooth and nail to win that exclusive story, Jean’s story. Because surely now that her husband is dead, Jean will be ready to talk. She must have known what happened. You would, wouldn’t you?
Life’s been hard for Jean over the years, playing the role of supportive wife when the world stood against her and Glen. It wasn’t easy for Glen either, the constant scrutiny and questioning from the police. Kate, a reporter, knows this and says just the right thing to put a foot in the door and make Jean open up to her, at least a little bit. Bob Sparkes, the detective, has had years of fretting over the case, worrying for the missing Bella, putting his career and health on the line. He, too, is waiting for Jean to end the years of silence.
Fiona Barton presents the story of The Widow from several alternating perspectives. The Widow and the Detective dominate for much of the novel but we also hear from the Reporter and others. Bella’s family isn’t forgotten, just as the young child herself is never too far away from the thoughts of every figure in the book.
I found The Widow very hard to put down. The alternating perspectives fed and maintained the momentum, with the revelations and tension mounting. It’s an obsessive read. I knew that I had to read it when I was fortunate enough to hear the author read from it at an event in London last autumn. I was hooked. The voices sounded natural, the circumstances fascinating. What would it be like to be the wife of someone suspected of such a terrible crime? I really wanted to hear what Jean had to say.
Jean is an intriguing character, for sure. She’s certainly an intriguing narrator. We’re in her power for much of the novel – she does not disappoint. My one issue with Jean is that you would never know that she is a woman of about 40 years old. If you didn’t know her age, you’d automatically assume her to be at least a generation older. Her knowledge of social media, and the media in general, as well as human behaviour and experience, is naive to say the least. I think that throughout I imagined her far older, unconsciously ignoring the references to her age, and so it didn’t bother me as much as it might have. I warmed to the detective Bob immediately. Whether he’s a realistic portrait of a detective is another matter – I fear for his survival and mental wellbeing in the real world – but I liked him enormously and enjoyed his part of the narrative.
The Widow is a dark read. How could it be otherwise when the underlying theme is the abduction of a young and innocent child? But it is lightened by Jean’s tone, the ridiculousness of some of the situations that Jean finds herself in, and the ambition of the reporter, who is not the most sympathetic of characters. As well as shifting narratives, The Widow also moves backwards and forwards in time. The whole structure of this book worked so well in keeping me hooked. It is filled to the rooftops with mystery and suspense, as well as huge jaw-dropping surprises, all overshadowed by the dark, terribly sad spectre of Bella’s tale. I was curious from the outset and Fiona Barton did an excellent job of keeping me that way until the very last page.