In the foreword, author Fiona Barton explains how in her former life as a journalist, she would often sit in court and look at the wife of the accused. Was it possible a partner could ever know the monsters they housed? Were they blind or assisting? What went on behind closed doors in those darkest of relationships? Her debut novel explores the themes of trust and deception, ignorance and naivety.
The title of the book, The Widow, should make it obvious we aren’t going to sit through a courtroom drama. That may have been the real life setting that sparked Barton’s interest but the story starts with our protagonist Jean Taylor already alone, the main drama in the past. Her husband has already passed on after being hit by a bus. This would usually be enough to leave a life in tatters but we soon learn that the damage had been done a long time before.
Early on, the build is slow. This never becomes a strain, it is far too gripping. The inner detective wonders how her husband, Glen Taylor, ended up beneath a bus. Was he hounded? Pushed? The hints and breadcrumbs are left from one chapter to the next. But this isn’t a big reveal – or even that important. When the heart of the story unfolds we learn why Glen had become a figure of hate.
The novel doesn’t just stay with Jean’s point of view. When we are seeing the world through her eyes it’s always in the first person, present tense. The blanks and alternating perspectives are filled in as we switch between characters. These are always told in the third person POV, past tense.
The first is a reporter, Kate Waters. She breaks the barricade of TV crews and other journalists and manages to get inside Jean’s home. Her super trick was carrying a bottle of milk. The offer is a chance for Jean to tell her story, help put perspective on events that followed Glen around.
In these chapters we have no idea what the story could be or why a widow would still be in the public eye.
Through more backstory, breaking up into sections (The Reporter; The Widow; The Detective), more becomes apparent while raising further questions.
The reporter is Bob Sparks. He is a warm accessible character and trusts Kate Waters. In later chapters this helps weave the plot together as they share information. Through the arrival of Bob Sparks the meat of the story is revealed.
Glen Taylor had been accused of kidnapping a little girl called Bella.
There are times the police procedures can raise eyebrows. Such was the author’s eagerness to keep the story rolling by placing suspicion over Glen, she turns Bob Sparks into the sort of officer seen in Making a Murderer.
Rather than explore every avenue, the police become fixated on Glen Taylor until they are convinced he has to be the guilty man. Or was this just canny writing because by doing so doubts creep in surrounding the validity of each and every situation.
Bella’s mother plays the media circus, and in the light of the Shannon Mathews case it’s hard not to develop a distrust. Many times she is frowned upon, or verbally attacked, for leaving a child alone in the garden.
Glen is no doubt slimy but his seemingly manipulative behaviour toward Jean doesn’t make him a child snatcher. Jean herself begins to sound obsessed with the case. The unhealthy fixation on Bella, combined with a change of attitude from the early years to a more stoic then stern approach, has the reader asking Barton’s original question: How much does the partner really know?
The answers start to appear with Kate Waters performing the sort of investigative journalism the police should have been one step ahead of. That’s not to say Bob Sparks remains impotent throughout. His dogged determination and perseverance carries him to a path for the truth.
Eventually the backstories catch up to Jean’s present day narrative. The journey there is tense and there are many moments that become almost too uncomfortable to read. The unknowns surrounding Bella and the possible suggestions, often planted from years of media coverage about these type of distressing cases, create fear and uneasiness.
From a practical point of view, it helps raise awareness on how to keep our children safe. From a literary sense, it makes for compulsive reading and a memorable first novel for Barton.