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.