The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney

There’s been a real trend in books featuring “girl” in the title, from Gone Girl to the Girl on the Train and a few more besides. I don’t know why I picked up this one because I find the diminutive “girl” problematic rather than recuperative when discussing women. Nonetheless, I think the premise (and rave reviews) fascinated me – the idea of someone having died in a house you move into and the sense of being haunted by that… I was, however, worried that perhaps this was just a “jump on the ‘girl’ bandwagon book” and I would have read it or better before.

Yet, The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney manages to be so much more than simply “on trend” and, when the reveal at the end occurs, the title resonates in ways I didn’t expect. Despite criticisms that it doesn’t stack up to some of its predecessors, I think where it really succeeds is in the structure – where we have two primary narrative voices, both female, who are described simply as “Emma/Then” and “Jane/Now”. The interweaving of immediate past and present as the two women’s lives come together through the minimalist structure of One Folgate Street – the house both Emma and Jane live in, albeit at different times – is very well executed. Designed by an award-winning and quite mysterious architect, Edward, who suffers his own burdens, the house strikes different people in different ways – as does the man. From the opening pages, the house is as much a character as the people who dwell within its controlled, “perfect” white walls.

Living in One Folgate Street comes at a price: for reduced rent, the tenants have to be prepared to follow a strict set of rules (200) which also involves an interview, answering a series of questions periodically (and some of these questions appear as epigraphs to chapters), and basically being prepared to shed whatever baggage physical – and, it turns out – emotional, they may carry.

Both Emma and Jane have baggage they want to shed and One Folgate Street, a house that responds sensitively – through technology –  to its residents, seems the perfect setting for doing so.

But when Jane (now) discovers Emma died in mysterious circumstances in the house, and that other parts of their lives have certain parallels, including a physical resemblance to each other and the architect’s wife, Jane begins a quest to uncover the truth of Emma’s death, the architect’s past and One Folgate Street itself.

Fast-paced and very well written, I found the first three-quarters of the book almost unputdownable. Unlike some people who found the lengthy questionnaire in order to qualify as a renter and mystique around the architect a bit too much to stomach, I found the explanations for his behaviour and various decisions worked within the world being created.

Clean though the house is, and burdened by rules, it’s keeping dirty secrets and a dark, oppressive and quite claustrophobic mood is created that the women seem unable to sense. I thought Delaney evoked this very well and this makes you, as reader, worry for their security.

However, the last quarter of the book sort of unravelled. What had seemed like logical progressions and character behaviour/development in the realm of the story, suddenly didn’t gel and some of the explanations (there’s a great deal of exposition at the end) were a bit too pat and even clichéd. I finished the book a wee bit disappointed after such a promising and thrilling beginning and middle. The book went, for me, from being quite unique to being almost ordinary. What elevates it above that is the writing. It is as clear and as uncluttered as the house and sparkles from the page.

So, overall, I give it 3.5 to four stars. What started with a bang, ended with a whimper, albeit, a lyrical one.

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

BOOK Book Reviews 11514819042I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this novel as it entered the literary world with both a great deal of hype as well as comparisons to the hugely successful book, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

I am delighted to say, this was a terrific read. Sharing more in common with Flynn’s work than the use of “girl” in lieu of “woman”in the title, such as the notion of unreliable narrator/s, it’s an original, dark and compelling story told from three female points of view. The primary narrator is Rachel, the “girl” on the train who, when travelling to and from her work daydreams about an apparently loving couple she sees for a few seconds each time the train pauses on its journey and who happen to live a few doors down from her old house. Inventing a life and even names for them, she invests heavily in her imaginary scenario so much so, one day, when she sees something that doesn’t accord with her imagined view of their world, she is distressed. When she discovers the young woman she has named “Jess” is missing, she is compelled to uncover the truth of what she thinks she saw and what it might mean.

Things, however, are a little more complicated than a blurring of the lines between fact and fantasy, or adhering to the adage “seeing is believing”. It just so happens Rachel was in the area the night the woman, whose real name is Megan, goes missing. Rachel knows something terrible has happened and she may have borne witness to events. The only problem is, Rachel is an alcoholic who has “blackouts” and cannot recall what occurred or even if anything did…But she has snatches of memory… snippets of images and very strong feelings that she cannot dismiss. Do they mean something or is it the drink playing tricks?

The other two narrators are Rachel’s ex-husband’s new wife, the young mother, Anna, who lives a few doors down from the missing Megan (who is the third narrator), and in the same house Rachel used to dwell in and which represented such promise and happiness, until her marriage unravelled.

The three women’s stories and, indeed, version of events, are all interwoven with Rachel’s painful and desperate need to recall, interfere and discover what is true, what is not, and overcome her battle with the bottle and the demons of her past being dominant.

I don’t want to give away too much about this plot because it is clever. There were times I thought, how on earth is Hawkins going to pull this off? There is no way I am going to be able to suspend my disbelief regarding this…. But I did. The reader does, and that’s because the flawed and oft-times pathetic and frustrating narrators of this macabre tale are as believable and human as are the stupid, reckless and tragic decisions they make and the lives of those they draw into their stories and actions.

Light on police procedural (which is where I struggled a bit with some of the actions and behaviour of characters), this is far more a psychological thriller that plumes the depths of perception, of memory, of how we construct our lives, make excuses, accord blame, and reinvent ourselves in an effort to erase the past and shore up a future. It’s how the same people can view an identical event in completely different ways and react accordingly.

It is also about manipulation, violence – emotional, psychological and physical – betrayal (of ourselves as well) and the impact this has on others.

Once I started this tale, I could not put it down and felt quite wrung out at the end. Like the train Rachel rides, you hop on board and find yourself hurtling towards a destination that even if you see it coming, the arrival is daunting and haunting.

A great and unexpected novel containing beautiful prose and some genuinely marvellous reflections on people and life, featuring weak and real characters embroiled in events that will chill and thrill, this is a cracker of a read.

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