The Widow was one of the most highly anticipated releases of 2016, drawing the now inevitable comparisons to Gone Girl and being variously described as “this year’s Girl on the Train” and “the ultimate psychological thriller.”
The first half of the book certainly lived up to this promise, taking the reader deep into the heart of domestic noir territory. It appears that all the key ingredients for a gripping thriller are present, not least the flawed and unreliable female narrator and the promise of a dark secret between husband and wife.
The widow of the title is Jean Taylor. For years she stood by her man, her somewhat dour and controlling husband Glen, as he was accused of the abduction – and suspected of the murder – of two-year-old Bella Elliott. Now Glen is dead and Jean is free to tell her story to the doggedly persistent journalist Kate Waters. But what does Jean know? Can she reveal Glen’s guilt or demonstrate his innocence? Was she as much his victim as anyone else? Or was she his accomplice? There is certainly something troubling and ‘not quite right’ about Jean and I flew through the novel’s first half in a frenzied bid to learn the truth.
And then I got past the halfway mark and everything fell as flat as a pancake. My advice would be not to read on if you have yet to read this book because Slight spoilers are on the way.
It was as I hit 60% or so that I realised that, instead of racing towards a thrilling climax, this plot was actually levelling off and heading towards a very obvious conclusion. This section of the novel is terribly dull and largely descriptive. The police investigation is depicted in minute, deeply uninteresting detail. It would be worth ploughing through this section if it brought us closer to the final revelation. But at this point, it became painfully apparent that there would be no final revelation. It is obvious what Glen has or hasn’t done and it is crystal clear what Jean knows or doesn’t know. There is no mystery here, no tension, no twist.
Of course, the twist here could be that there is no twist; a way of refreshing this somewhat crowded genre. But it isn’t presented this way and just comes across as woeful plot development.
The Widow isn’t just a weak thriller; it isn’t a thriller at all. It teases us for the first half and then just meanders to the finish; all of its ‘secrets’ were, it turns out, floating right on the surface from the very beginning.
And it certainly isn’t a psychological thriller. I felt that I was kept very much at arm’s length from the characters here and there were no real glimpses into their psyches. What has made Jean the way she is? A deeply strange character, it is a shock to discover she is only 39 when she seems so much older. But there are no clues as to what has led to her living the life of someone almost twice her age. She, like the other characters in the novel, remains two-dimensional.
So, for me at least, this is not a thriller of any description. Which could just be down to misleading marketing; to the book being presented as a thriller when it isn’t really. Except there is nothing else it could be; The Widow doesn’t offer anything in place of a thriller plot. It certainly touches upon some very interesting themes. Bella’s disappearance recalls that of Madeleine McCann in that some sections of the public feel that the parents should accept some of the blame. This doesn’t really lead to any kind of discussion, though. Similarly, the book touches on the media’s and public’s perception of the wife or partner of a (male) criminal. There have been countless crimes with a “don’t tell me she didn’t know what was going on!” element. Obviously, this plays a huge role in The Widow but, again, this theme isn’t explored in much depth. The only thing that really is examined in detail is the media’s role in and response to crimes like this. Barton, a former journalist, confirms what many of us suspected in scenes that have more than a whiff of truth and read more like a chilling expose than fiction.
A debut novel, The Widow is incredibly well-written throughout but I cannot for the life of me find a gripping thriller – or any kind of thriller at all for that matter – lurking anywhere within it.