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14 may 2018
On the cover of Fiona Barton's recent novel, a blurb from Stephen King suggests that "If you liked Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, you might want to pick up The Widow." Wouldn't blurb conventions dictate "you'll love" as the parallel phrase? In any case, I didn't like The Girl on the Train, which I found overwritten and fussy. And I did like The Widow, so maybe King's less-than-enthusiastic connection somehow pans out in a backhanded way. Barton's thriller is placidly pessimistic and rings true to a kind of exhausted 21st-century lifestyle that breeds banal evil – fortunately more often in fiction than in real life.
A pervasive motif in The Widow is the dullness of the confines of marriage. Jean, the title widow, survived in a claustrophobic relationship with her late husband Glen. Their lives, as imagined by Jean in retrospect, are an endless round of pointless work, shopping, eating defrosted meals, washing up, seeing what's on telly, and browsing Internet porn. The soullessness of this existence leaves Jean unable to break free even as Glen is accused of kidnapping and murder.
In fact, such soullessness is a matrix for crime. Yet it's hardly an aberration. The other two central characters in The Widow, detective Bob and reporter Kate, are just as boringly married, if a little more interestingly employed. The listlessly partnered Bob and Kate even flirt with each other, but half-heartedly – as if each knows that repartnering would be just as drab. Their lives are tethered to a culture that has had everything but the functional framework sucked out of it: in Barton's imagination, the culture of the greater-London suburbs, but it could just as well be North America or elsewhere in Europe. It's a Thoreauvian universe, its mass of men and women living lives of quiet desperation.
The novel wouldn't be called The Widow if the widow, Jean, didn't know more than she initially lets on. You see the general form of its revelations a long way off, and in a sense they're just as dull as the rest of the novel. But that very enervation is part of the achievement of the book. It's not much of a mystery, and it's not much of a procedural. The lack of empathy and imagination that informs Barton's suburbs extends to the police and their inability to discern the motives and methods of the case. The Widow becomes something of a Revolutionary Road for the digital generation. I think it's a distinct cut above the mechanical thrills of The Girl on the Train.
If The Widow has a flaw, it is perhaps its simplistic view of pornography (which it sees as a gallery of horrors consumed by lonely, violent predators). And like many contemporary fictions, it doesn't quite seem to get the Internet right, conceiving at one point of the online porn world as being made up of clubs of men (and women too) who meet really or virtually to chat about sexual imagery. Maybe the Internet cannot be gotten right: it changes too quickly and is too much of a dumping ground for all our fears.
Barton, Fiona. The Widow. 2016. New York: Berkley [Penguin Random House], 2017. PR 6102 .A7839W53