This is the review of the book I chose to recommend for the site Petrona Remembered – created in memory of crime fiction fan Maxine Clark. The review appeared on the site yesteday.
The Widow by Fiona Bartonpublished 2016
Although I didn’t know Maxine Clarke, Petrona, for long, she made a big impression on me. She was kind and generous and very welcoming to a new blogger – she was part of a group of crime fiction fans who very kindly invited me in to their circle. The others are friends to this day, and so we all miss Maxine, who should still be here.
The Widow is a new book by first-time novelist Fiona Barton, and I am sure Maxine would have wanted to read it.
The story is apparently simple.
Glen Taylor has died in a road accident, and that is going to change things for a number of people. Glen was the chief suspect in the disappearance of a toddler some years back, and although he walked free, most people think he was the guilty party. The child, Bella, might be dead or alive: she has never been found. So the policeman who was in charge of the case is now on the alert for more information – perhaps the widow knows something vital? A reporter, Kate, is hoping she might get hold of the true story of the disappearance. The mother of missing Bella has never had any closure.
And, more than anyone, Glen’s widow Jean is facing a huge decisive moment in her life.
The book has a complex time scheme - which I did occasionally find confusing. Often a double time-frame book has a gap of, say, 20 years, but in this one the crime was only four years before, so there are fewer internal clues to where you are. The dates are clearly printed at the beginning of each section – but as they are all in the past 10 years, that’s not as helpful as it might be. But this is a minor quibble.
We go back and follow the story of Bella’s disappearance, and the police investigation, and we look at Jean and Glen’s life together. In the contemporary time frame, Kate has found her way into Jean’s house, and is trying to get information from her. Was Glen guilty, does Jean know, does she hold vital information on what happened to Bella?
The Widow is claustrophobic – there are multiple points of view in the narration, some of it first person from Jean, but it’s a single plot thread, no subplots. Although there aren’t going to be many surprises (how many different ways could this story be resolved? - not many), Barton does a terrific job of creating tension and atmosphere. I would have liked a little more clarity in the ending, but really it’s an excellent page-turner, and I look forward to more books from her.
It’s a dark and cheerless story with some very harsh aspects of modern life featured, and it is very sad overall, but it also contains some nice characters, and good hearts. The reporter and the policeman are both worthwhile people, trying to do their jobs.
I particularly liked the portrayal of Kate – the reporter who talks to the widows and partners and mothers. She might seem hard and ruthless and callous at times, but Barton also shows that she does have principles, and she does actually help the people she talks to. I have never done Kate’s exact job, but as a reporter I have often talked to people – in circumstances where others might assume the worst – and been told by my interviewee that it helped to talk, that they really wanted to tell the story. And it is true, as in this book, you sometimes stay in touch with people you meet on a story – the assumption that the interviewee hates the reporter afterwards is far from accurate. (One woman used to ring me late at night when I was doing night shifts to talk about the tragedy in her family, and would say ‘you are the only person who will listen to me, everyone else tells me I should be moving on.’)
Fiona Barton did do the same job as Kate for many years – but you would know that without even checking her author bio, as the details are so authentic. She says she was fascinated by those wives who stood by their man, a man accused of a terrible crime. Did they know, did they suspect, did they trust? What were they really thinking? This book is an excellent attempt to get inside the head of one of those women. I think Maxine would have enjoyed it very much.
The pictures are all portraits of widows from the Athenaeum website.
The top one (by Alfred Emile Leopold Stevens) is crumpled on the sofa just like Jean – she’s even got the bunch of flowers Kate brought to soften her up.
The second one, by Ivan Ksenofontov, is having her moment of decision, you would say.
The third portrait, a 17th century widow by Mary Beale, has a very enigmatic and serious look about her and perhaps, like Jean in the book though more than 300 years earlier, knows more than she’s saying.