Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Tuesday, December 15, 2015: Maximum Shelf: The Widow

New American Library: The Widow by Fiona Barton

New American Library: The Widow by Fiona Barton

New American Library: The Widow by Fiona Barton

New American Library: The Widow by Fiona Barton

The Widow

by Fiona Barton

The Widow, Fiona Barton's debut, is a complex psychological thriller that weaves together the narratives of four characters to probe the depths of a terrible crime and the lasting impact it has had on all of them.

The novel opens on the recently widowed Jean Taylor, who has just lost her husband to a terrible bus accident. Reporters want to hear her story and her thoughts on losing her husband, but Jean knows she cannot tell them the truth. "Everyone was very kind and trying to stop me from seeing his body," she reflects, "but I couldn't tell them I was glad he was gone. No more of his nonsense."

The nonsense she refers to is the nightmare that turned their marriage upside down four years earlier: the disappearance of a young child in the suburbs of England, which sparks inquiries into local child-porn rings. A former colleague of Jean's husband provides a tip that leads the police to the Taylors' doorstep. To Jean's surprise, the police claim that Glen has not only been downloading child pornography in their home, they believe he's responsible for the disappearance of two-year-old Bella Elliott--though they can't quite prove it. Yet.

The Widow moves back and forth in time to build the story of Glen and Jean's marriage, their troubles having children, the difficulties of living through Glen's trials--and the switches Jean Taylor makes between "Jean" and "Jeanie" to protect herself: "Jeanie saved me. She bumbled on with her life, cooking tea, washing customers' hair, sweeping the floor, and making the beds. She knew that Glen was a victim of a police plot. She stood by the man she married. The man she chose."  

This switching between Jean and Jeanie is a device that Barton uses to great effect to explore the complicated and intriguing question of how a woman--any woman--could stand by a man accused of such terrible crimes. How much can that kind of loyalty withstand, and for how long? How much is Jean motivated by selfishness and how much by selflessness? What are we willing to believe in order to make ourselves more comfortable in the choices we have made?

Within these questions lie the much broader and more universal questions of marriages in general: How well do we really know the person we have chosen to share our life with? And how willing are we to admit our own blind spots when it comes to those we love?

The majority of The Widow is told through Jean's first-person narration, but Barton has expertly woven other perspectives into the novel. There is the story of Bob Sparkes, the detective assigned to the Bella Elliott case from the outset, and his determination to find the missing child. There is the story of Dawn Elliott, Bella's mother, whose voice lends an added layer of desperation and sadness to the novel. And there is the perspective of Kate Waters, a journalist determined to score an exclusive interview with Jean Taylor following her husband's death.

Though it may be tempting to see The Widow as an exploration of the many ways secrets can tear people apart--as in the case of Jean and Glen--it is also very much the story of how secrets bring these four disparate characters together. Bob is forever tied to Bella Elliott's mother as he searches for her missing daughter; Kate is linked to Bob as they both search for answers to the same questions, though for different reasons; Jean is linked to all of them through her marriage to Glen, and the ways that Bob, Kate and Dawn dog her for answers about the missing girl. Answers that Jean--or Jeanie, depending on the moment--is not sure she has, but not sure she doesn't.

While each of the secondary characters in Barton's novel feels real and fully imagined, it is Kate's thread that proves most nuanced and interesting--not surprising, given Barton's decades-long career in journalism. This journalistic background has clearly shaped Barton's style as a writer: the dialogue in The Widow is crisp and clear and realistic, blending in seamlessly with Barton's narrative descriptions of scenes and happenings.

All of this makes The Widow successful psychological suspense, seemingly ripped from today's headlines. It combines probing questions about the human psyche with masterful plotting and sharply drawn characters whose dark secrets waver in the public eye. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm
New American Library, $26, hardcover, 9781101990261, February 2016

New American Library: The Widow by Fiona Barton

Fiona Barton: The Strength of Secrets

photo: Justyn Willsmore

Fiona Barton has been a senior writer at the Daily Mail, news editor at the Daily Telegraph and chief reporter at the Mail on Sunday. She now works with exiled and threatened journalists around the world. Her debut novel, The Widow, draws on this journalistic experience to build a dark psychological thriller. Barton lives in Southwest France with her husband.

The Widow is a psychological thriller, building the story of a crime through the perspective of the wife of the accused.

Yes, simply, it's a psychological thriller--but it isn't a simple book. It's a book told by a woman who has been widowed recently, after she and her husband lived through her husband being accused of a terrible crime--taking a child. She tells the story of standing by her man through all of this, which is interwoven with the narrative of the detective looking for the missing child, and the mother of the child, and a reporter who is desperately trying to get an exclusive interview with the widow.

When you set out to write, did you plan to write these multiple perspectives? How did you decide which voices to include?

When I set out to write it, I thought it would all be told by the widow, Jean Taylor. The others were just characters in her narrative. But I felt that I needed them to speak, because otherwise everything was told from Jean's point of view--and I've always found that narrators can be quite unreliable. I wanted to contrast different takes on the situation. I introduced the other narrators to give other perspectives on what was happening, to show that when people tell a story, they're not always telling the truth.

First of all, I introduced Kate, the reporter, and gave her a voice. Then the detective, and, finally, the mother--I felt it was right that she also spoke. But it is still primarily the widow's story. Jean tells her story in the first-person present, and hers is the voice that I could hear when I was writing it.

In some ways, The Widow is the story of how secrets an drive us apart, but did you also intend to explore how secrets can tie people together?

That's an observation that I've made in the many stories that I've done. Shared secrets can draw people together, even though it may be a terrible secret.

Inside every person is a secret self, I've always thought. It may not be a malign secret self; it may be a dream or a fantasy that you've never shared with anybody else. That's part of being human and being an individual.

The book centers on Jean, but at times she insists on being called Jeanie--almost like Jean and Jeanie are two different people.


It was quite clear in my mind that there was a moment when Jean decided that she would be "Jeanie," the quiet little woman at home. It was safer for her and she didn't have to pretend that she knew anything about anything. She just got on with being a hairdresser and living a normal life.

I've used this as a device, really, to show that even as she says she is going to carry on, there will be moments of terrible doubt. When she is Jean, she takes these moments out and examines them.

How much of Jean's character can be attributed to her talent at keeping secrets and how much is a byproduct of her refusal to admit the truth to herself?

Jean started as this very mousy character in my mind. But she found quite a lot of inner strength, borne of fear of admitting that things might not be as perfect as she had told herself. She is holding on to what she believes her life has been--and is. If she admits that her husband did this terrible thing that he is accused of, it would mean everything she had thought was a lie. That's a hell of a thing to admit, so maybe it's better to hold on and hope. Hope that everything that he is telling you, his lawyers are telling you, his mother is telling you, is right.

You do see stories like this in actual headlines--where one half of a couple is accused of something terrible.

This book began by me watching the wives of the accused in trials, because I covered a lot of court cases. And I always wondered if they were hearing these things for the first time, this horrible evidence. How much did they know? If you've ever sat in on a trial, the evidence in, say, a murder trial, is incredibly hard-hitting. Everything is revealed. And so if you didn't know what someone was really being accused of, that must be one hell of a moment.

How much of Kate's journalistic process is based on your own experience as a reporter?

She's not me, but I have been everywhere that she has been. I have been on the doorsteps and been in stories where we're trying to get an exclusive. I've been in hotels with people being interviewed. I've been everywhere she is, but her reactions were not my reactions.

I've known a lot of journalists over the years, so have drawn on a lot of my experiences and characters I've met along the way.

How do you think that your experience writing journalistic pieces shaped your process of writing fiction?

People will often say that journalists just make things up. We definitely don't. There may be rogues in journalism, as in any walk of life, but journalism is not about making up stories. You don't need to! There are enough stories out there.

The sort of book that I have written is all about people, and it has a lot of dialogue, and that's what my reporting was like. I've always enjoyed dialogue--listening to people's actual words and writing them down. I hope it's given me a bit of an idea of how people actually speak. I don't go in for big flowery passages of description; I write very much as a journalist would write.

I really enjoyed writing the book. I loved the freedom of it, and I love writing. I've written every day for I don't know how many years, how many decades. I've always enjoyed writing, and I've never felt that it's a burden. So that didn't frighten me. I loved it. I really loved it. And now I'm plowing away at another one.

Can you tell us more about what you're working on now?

It's still very much a work in progress. It's another psychological thriller, and also very character-driven. Kate, the reporter from The Widow, is in it again. I wasn't planning on doing any kind of series or anything, but the second book does feature Kate quite prominently. So it's the same sort of genre, with strong female characters, and no detectives.

And in the meantime, The Widow has been optioned for TV serial rights. There's quite some excitement around it. It still feels so surreal, the whole thing. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

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