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NPR Arts & Life

Lies We Tell Ourselves Propel 'The Widow'

Looking at crimes from a different angle has become something of a trope these days — The Girl on the Train, anyone?

However, clever though Paula Hawkins' novel was, modern writers did not invent the alternate perspective. Think Rear Window, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Rebecca. Murder does make voyeurs of us all (as Hamlet didn't quite say).

The ultimate voyeur may be the reporter. Fiona Barton spent years writing for Britain's Daily Mail and Telegraph newspapers, and her journalistic eye is what makes this debut novel so assured and compelling. This is no small feat, given that both the crime and the death of the man convicted of it happen by page three, leaving several narrators to fill readers in on the backstory and its loose threads.

Glen Taylor was taken into custody for the abduction and disappearance of a toddler named Bella. The charges officially dismissed, he returns home to the semi-detached where his wife Jean has remained, despite being shunned by the community that knows Glen's computer contained evidence of his sexual predilections. "No one wanted to know us now," says Jean. "They just wanted to know about us."

Had he but lived, Glen Taylor's might have become a familiar story: The shadowy, creepy neighbor who rarely goes out and isn't trusted around anyone's children. When he's run over by a bus, however, a London reporter and a local detective realize Jean Taylor's side of the story is up for grabs.

Their pursuit of Jean's tale propels The Widow, but its strength rests on her bowed shoulders. "Must be a reporter," she says when Kate Waters from the Daily Post shows up. "I bet she says 'I'm sorry to bother you at such a difficult time.' They all say that and put on that stupid face. Like they care." Kate "seems to be in charge of things," Jean muses. "It's quite nice to have someone in charge of me again. I was beginning to think I'd have to cope with everything on my own."

Barton, a seasoned reporter herself, understands the power of previously silent voice, as well as the frustration involved when that voice won't speak up. Bella is still missing, and her mother galvanizes a campaign to find her that puts pressure on the police and media. Some of the book's best moments illuminate how stressful it is to solve a case: Kate's constant travel and nights in hotel rooms, or Detective Inspector Bob Sparkes attempting to have a simple supper with his wife.

Kate may be manipulating Jean to get her story, but Jean has her own agenda; she's manipulating Kate right back. Their psychological fan dance winds up more obscene than anything on Glen Taylor's hard drive, as it delays discovery of the truth — and Barton shows that anguish by including chapters from the perspective of Bella Taylor's mother, Dawn.

A few critics have noted that Barton tips her hand too soon. While that might be a first-time novelist's mistake, it might also be the deliberate work of a professional observer who knows that the lies we tell ourselves can be more devastating than those we tell others.

Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.

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