Thursday, 11 February 2016

The Widow by Fiona Barton: A Book for Petrona


This is the review of the book I chose to recommend for the site Petrona Remembered – created in memory of crime fiction fan Maxine Clark. The review appeared on the site yesteday.


The Widow by Fiona Barton

published 2016


 
widow petrona 3
 

Although I didn’t know Maxine Clarke, Petrona, for long, she made a big impression on me. She was kind and generous and very welcoming to a new blogger – she was part of a group of crime fiction fans who very kindly invited me in to their circle. The others are friends to this day, and so we all miss Maxine, who should still be here.

 
The Widow is a new book by first-time novelist Fiona Barton, and I am sure Maxine would have wanted to read it.

The story is apparently simple.

Glen Taylor has died in a road accident, and that is going to change things for a number of people. Glen was the chief suspect in the disappearance of a toddler some years back, and although he walked free, most people think he was the guilty party. The child, Bella, might be dead or alive: she has never been found. So the policeman who was in charge of the case is now on the alert for more information – perhaps the widow knows something vital? A reporter, Kate, is hoping she might get hold of the true story of the disappearance. The mother of missing Bella has never had any closure.

And, more than anyone, Glen’s widow Jean is facing a huge decisive moment in her life.



Widow Petrona 2


The book has a complex time scheme - which I did occasionally find confusing. Often a double time-frame book has a gap of, say, 20 years, but in this one the crime was only four years before, so there are fewer internal clues to where you are. The dates are clearly printed at the beginning of each section – but as they are all in the past 10 years, that’s not as helpful as it might be. But this is a minor quibble.

We go back and follow the story of Bella’s disappearance, and the police investigation, and we look at Jean and Glen’s life together. In the contemporary time frame, Kate has found her way into Jean’s house, and is trying to get information from her. Was Glen guilty, does Jean know, does she hold vital information on what happened to Bella?

The Widow is claustrophobic – there are multiple points ofwidow cover view in the narration, some of it first person from Jean, but it’s a single plot thread, no subplots. Although there aren’t going to be many surprises (how many different ways could this story be resolved? - not many), Barton does a terrific job of creating tension and atmosphere. I would have liked a little more clarity in the ending, but really it’s an excellent page-turner, and I look forward to more books from her.

It’s a dark and cheerless story with some very harsh aspects of modern life featured, and it is very sad overall, but it also contains some nice characters, and good hearts. The reporter and the policeman are both worthwhile people, trying to do their jobs.

 


I particularly liked the portrayal of Kate – the reporter who talks to the widows and partners and mothers. She might seem hard and ruthless and callous at times, but Barton also shows that she does have principles, and she does actually help the people she talks to. I have never done Kate’s exact job, but as a reporter I have often talked to people – in circumstances where others might assume the worst – and been told by my interviewee that it helped to talk, that they really wanted to tell the story. And it is true, as in this book, you sometimes stay in touch with people you meet on a story – the assumption that the interviewee hates the reporter afterwards is far from accurate. (One woman used to ring me late at night when I was doing night shifts to talk about the tragedy in her family, and would say ‘you are the only person who will listen to me, everyone else tells me I should be moving on.’)

Fiona Barton did do the same job as Kate for many years – but you would know that without even checking her author bio, as the details are so authentic. She says she was fascinated by those wives who stood by their man, a man accused of a terrible crime. Did they know, did they suspect, did they trust? What were they really thinking? This book is an excellent attempt to get inside the head of one of those women. I think Maxine would have enjoyed it very much.

The pictures are all portraits of widows from the Athenaeum website.

The top one (by Alfred Emile Leopold Stevens) is crumpled on the sofa just like Jean – she’s even got the bunch of flowers Kate brought to soften her up.

The second one, by Ivan Ksenofontov, is having her moment of decision, you would say.

The third portrait,  a 17th century widow by Mary Beale, has a very enigmatic and serious look about her and perhaps, like Jean in the book though more than 300 years earlier, knows more than she’s saying.





















14 comments:

  1. I think you chose a fantastic novel to recommend to Maxine, Moira. I think she would have enjoyed it. And it sounds as though it has some really interesting layers os psychology in it, something I enjoy.

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    1. Thank you for all your work organizing the Petrona site and doing the posting, Margot. And yes, I think you would enjoy this one.

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  2. This sounds like it could be good, although not my usual type of mystery. I will try it sometime. The UK cover is very nice, nicer than the one coming out soon in the US.

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    1. Just looked at the US cover and I agree, this one is better - the US one is generic, looks like too many others, and actually is generic for a different kind of book, I would say. Anyway, I think you would like this one.

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  3. I really like the sound of this one (as long as the time shifts are not too confusing and can be kept up with; I ejoy that kind of structure when ti is done well) - thanks Moira.

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    1. Definitely interesting Sergio - and I think a writer to watch, I'm sure she's got more good books in her.

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  4. Moira, this is a good selection in memory of Maxine. I think crime fiction has to be "dark and cheerless" and stifle the reader at least until the investigation into a present or previous murder is resolved. Even then, the aftertaste of the crime and the chilling excitement lingers. I liked the cover of "The Widow" and the images you chose.

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    1. Thanks Prashant, I was fascinated by all the widows in art, I found the pictures very interesting. And yes, this has all the traits of a real crime book...

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  5. Wonderful review - and some great paintings to illustrate it with (I wish I knew more about art!) I particularly liked the top one. I quite enjoyed The Widow, but felt the writer could have went any number of ways at the end.

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    1. I know what you mean, and I could have done with a bit more at the end. But the story really drew me in, and I thought the writing was good.

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  6. Moira: I enjoyed your review but not for me.

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    1. Thanks Bill, and we all have to make our choices...

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  7. Replies
    1. You're let off because you have too many books already, but actually I think you might like it.

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