If you follow me on Snapchat, you may have seen my middle-of-the-night freakout over The Widow. I would show you, but I forgot to download it before it expired. (Curses.)
Fiona Barton’s The Widow has been out for a month in the UK, but was just published today in the US—so grab it now! It tells a gruesome story of the abduction and suspected murder of a two-year-old girl, from the perspective of the widow of the suspected kidnapper. Jean Taylor was always the quiet and doting wife, who never believed the crimes her husband Glen was accused of—or did she? When Glen is unexpectedly killed in a bus accident, Jean decides at last to speak to the press—and her wavering testimony begins to cast doubts over where the guilt really lies.
I’ve been absolutely lapping up the recent trend for complex female characters in crime fiction, and I have a particular soft spot for unreliable narrators who blur the lines somewhat between guilty and innocent. The Widow hit that spot big time, with a host of characters who refuse to fit into one-dimensional moulds of any kind.
There’s the eponymous widow, of course, who remains in equal parts tragic and terrifying even a few days after finishing the book. But there’s also the reporter: Kate Waters is a ruthless journalist, totally unashamed to use her warm, empathetic people skills to manipulate even the most vulnerable of characters. The author Fiona Barton was a journalist for many years before turning her talents to writing, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a confession of sorts. Merciless as Kate can be, she is also unshakeably likeable—so if Barton wanted to profess her sins without judgement, it’s worked.
DI Bob Sparkes is the novel’s third protagonist, and he’s certainly a sympathetic and well-rounded character, but the third most interesting character for me was instead Dawn Elliot, the mother of the abducted child. Her grief for her missing daughter is certainly heartfelt, but rather than paint her as nothing more than a helpless victim, Fiona Barton brings her to life with a few unsettling traits: her self-absorption; her arguably neglectful parenting; a hint that she may enjoy the attention the media circus brings.
Even the various suspects, including Jean’s late husband Glen, are drawn with an empathetic eye; they are more than the sum of their various crimes. When it comes to character development, I couldn’t fault Barton for a moment.
What this novel is: a complex and moving character study exploring the fall-out of a terrible crime.
What this novel isn’t: a twisty thriller in the vein of The Girl on the Train. But that’s exactly how it was marketed.
The problem with this is that I read it searching for clues and twists, which meant I focused too much on playing detective instead of absorbing the true depth of Barton’s skilful writing. There are certainly questions up in the air, but this novel is better approached as an episode of Columbo than as a whodunnit. This is a fault of the marketing department rather than the writer, but it’s a move that risks leaving readers unsatisfied at the ending—instead of appreciating it for its truly sinister depth.
False marketing aside, this book deserves all the praise it has been getting. It’s a sensitive and unsettling portrayal of the inner lives and motives of otherwise familiar characters: the criminal, the reporter, the investigator, and of course, the silent and supportive wife.
*I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.