The Widow, Fiona Barton

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I love a bit of variety to my reading, and this book certainly provided that. I picked it up because of the blue circle on the front – ‘perfect to fill the dark void left by The Girl on the Train’‘. I question the comparison – although I can see spousal abuse in The Widow, The Gril on the Train had a much more powerful and harmful portrayal of that, whereas the Widow is darker because it is about children.

Caution! Spoilers!

This novel held an element of mystery from the beginning, even though you think you know who the perpetrator of the crime was. Jean seems, initially, confused and lost, but as the book progresses you start to realise that her sanity is not complete and that she knows far more than she lets on.

There is a consistent level of doubt throughout the novel about whether Glen was Bella’s kidnapper, or whether others, such as Doonan, were actually responsible. This held up throughout Sparkes’ investigation, right up until about 50 pages from the end when all other suspects were ruled out. By that time, however, Jean had revealed enough that the reader was far more certain anyway that Glen had been responsible.

The use of flashbacks, and using dates almost like police logs helped to create the feel of an investigation. The reader never has all the information until the end, which means that they feel Sparkes’ frustration and are desperate for Bella to be found.

As a mystery novel, this was well written, well paced and well laid out.

But the content was difficult. Child pornography, child rape, kidnapping, the intimation of abuse towards Bella… It was almost too difficult to read. Without in any way being explicit, The Widow paints a picture of an underworld of dangerous and harmful porn that leaks out into the real world to the endangerment of living people.

The one chapter written from Glen’s perspective, late in the book, shows how he made the decision to take Bella. He thinks to himself ‘it was a sickness, and he would get better’. Yet the plot continues and Bella is taken.

Barton writes addiction with skill and insight. Whilst anyone who suffers from addiction can relate to Glen’s struggle, you do not end up liking or feeling sorry for him. His emotional abuse towards Jean is evident from the outset of their relationship. She is allowed the semblance of freedom but is withdrawn and turned into an echo of Glen rather than allowed to develop as her own person. Glen is an emotionally damaged man, who cannot see past his own desires. His selfishness, his need, is what leads to Bella’s death. He is also weak, and a bit pathetic. He doesn’t remember what he did to her. He doesn’t remember how she died. We never find out what Bella really suffered. Because no one will ever know.

The development of Jean’s attachment to Bella, from the initial news event, to the moment she blamed Dawn for losing ‘our’ child, is impressive and painful. You can really feel Jean’s grief as she mourns her barrenness and aches for a child. She exhibits her own forms of mental illness, from the scrapbooks of pictures of children taken from magazines and newspapers, to the desire to ‘look after’ Bella in her death; to visit the place Glen left Bella and make sure it is cared for.  The conclusion to the novel is haunting: ‘Bella knew I was there, and that’s all that matters’.

The Verdict

I believe this was a debut novel, and I never once felt like I was reading a first time writer; probably because much of the story was told through the reporter Kate, and Barton herself was a reporter before trying her hand at fiction. Whilst I found the subject matter difficult, I did enjoy the suspense and mystery, and I would look out for this author again.

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