- - Thursday, February 4, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE WIDOW

By Fiona Barton

New American Library, $26, 336 pages

“The Widow” arrives from England recommended as “twisty psychological suspense” and “an electrifying debut thriller.” It’s not either of these. It’s more like a jigsaw puzzle. From the get-go you know how the final picture looks: in this case, you soon realize that Glen Taylor is the villain who abducted two-year old Bella Elliott. As a reader, your job is to put the pieces together: to figure out how he did it and why, and how much his wife Jean knew or guessed during the months of police investigation and the years in which suspicion swirled around him.

The collaborators on solving this puzzle are the narrators who tell the tale — or rather, their tales. One is Jean, the eponymous widow and not always as truthful or insightful as she might be because she has had a vested interest in protecting her husband — and indeed herself. There is also a narrator who sticks with journalist Kate Waters, who wins enough of Jean’s confidence to get an interview that slots some of the puzzle pieces into place. This narrator also sits on the shoulder of Bob Sparkes, the detective trying to discover what happened to Bella. She was playing with a cat in the front yard when she disappeared, leaving behind only a half-sucked candy. Neither her mother, who was in the kitchen at the back of the house, nor the vigilant neighbor, who watches who’s parking their car the street, saw anything. For months Sparkes and his team draw a blank, and even when they finally turn the spotlight of suspicion onto Glen, they cannot prove that he is the culprit — in part because Jean holds onto a piece of evidence.

Author Fiona Barton moves the focus of her novel back and forth between the time of Bella’s disappearance in 2006 and Glen’s death in 2010. She begins with Kate Waters inveigling the newly widowed Jean into a tell-all interview. Kate’s primary interest is what Jean knew three years earlier when Bella disappeared. But in another sense the story of this novel began 20 years previously when Jean married Glen. She was 19, naive, poorly educated. He a little older, good looking, working in a bank, and very much in charge of the marriage. Jean let him have things his way. He was not inattentive; she was not unhappy; their marriage was seemingly ordinary — at least at first. Yet when Glen dies Jean says, “Everyone was very kind … I couldn’t tell them I was glad he was gone. No more of his nonsense.”

“His nonsense” is Jean’s term for his hours spent poring over a computer screen; his prevarications about why he lost his job; his protestations of innocence when the police question him about Bella. But the dismissive euphemism is also Jean’s way of hiding what she knew or suspected about his activities. Her unreliability as a narrator pushes this question into the spotlight. As we read of the barrage of reporters and photographers knocking at the front door or hounding her and Glen when they go outside, it’s easy to recall all those women caught in the glare of television as they stand by husbands accused of heinous crimes and cruelties. What did they know of their husband’s doings? Are they like Jean, who says “Me the grieving widow? Don’t make me laugh.”

A novelist could try to resolve such questions by exploring the backgrounds of husband and wife, analyzing the dynamics of their relationship, needling away at the ties that bind them together. Fiona Barton paints a picture of an ill-informed young girl preferring to accommodate Glen’s nit-pickiness and his refusal to discuss uncomfortable matters rather than to make any demands. This is a portrait of a marriage as Kate Waters might paint it for a newspaper or magazine article, but it lacks the nuances — the chiaroscuro — that a novel can reveal. The split narrators are partly responsible. At times the reader is with Jean, who tells of her hopes and her life with Glen. At other times, we are rooting for Kate in her effort to get a scoop by unraveling the mysteries of Bella’s disappearance. At times, too, we are with Bob Sparkes who can bring the powers of CCTV cameras and police networks to the task of pinpointing the truth. As a result “The Widow” is always a fast-paced, highly readable novel. Often it engrosses with puzzles that grip the attention, but it has relatively little of the suspense that can have readers sitting on the edge of their seats, or the insight that enlightens the dark world of men who steal little girls.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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