We all too often hear of horrific crimes, and the horrible people who commit them. We hear about their neighbours and friends who claim that the perpetrator was “quiet” and “kind” and “not the type to do such a thing.” We either sympathize with or condemn their mothers and family members who are unable to believe that the child they raised can commit murder or rape or kidnapping. In The Widow, Fiona Barton asks how much can such a person’s wife actually know, and how complicit can she be in his crimes?
Jean Taylor has always been the loyal, perfect wife. Even after her husband was accused of kidnapping a little girl, even after she was confronted with evidence that he had child pornography on his computer, Jean stood by his side and maintained that it was all a big mistake and that he was innocent. When he dies, the reporters are once again at her door, demanding answers now that she no reason to stay silent. One particularly persistent reporter Kate succeeds in getting her foot in the door, and coaxes Jean to tell the full story once and for all.
The Widow is a fascinating story that flips between the past and the present, and among multiple points of view. I wouldn’t quite call it a page turner — possibly because the husband was already dead and possibly also because there never seemed to be much hope about finding the little girl still alive, a lot of the suspense seemed to be about what exactly Jean will confess to Kate. And I must confess, I was rooting against Kate; she seems to me the vulture-ish type of journalist who’ll do anything for a story, and I recoiled at how aggressively she preyed on the vulnerability of both Jean and, in the flashback chapters, the little girl’s mother just to get her story. I was curious about the truth behind Jean’s story, but I was also fervently hoping she wouldn’t reveal it to Kate.
I was more fascinated by the relationship between Jean and her husband Glen, and wish the story had focused more on what happened after his purported crimes were discovered. I love how it showed how the crime results in more than one victim — the girl’s mother, who is unable to move on, Jean whose belief in her husband’s innocence isn’t quite 100%, and possibly Glen himself, if it turns out he really didn’t do it. I also love how it shows that the supposed “good” guys aren’t fully heroic either. The reporter, as I said, is manipulative, and the little girl’s mother at times seems more interested in placing herself in the spotlight than in finding her daughter.
The big reveal at the end, about the motivations behind the crime, is pretty unreliable as well, and open to many possible interpretations. How much truth is in it, and how much does that implicate or exonerate certain characters? And how should we feel about what happens in the final chapter? I’m personally creeped out by the ending, and view the purported motivation as nothing more than an excuse, but I also find it somewhat sad, and in a different story, the characters’ actions can well be a source for sympathy. I like this ambiguity, and kudos to debut author Fiona Barton for making it happen.
It’s not quite the usual thriller — such a story would traditionally have focused more on the police officer in search of the criminal, the journalist in search of the story or the victim’s mother in search of justice. By focusing on the widow of the alleged criminal, on a wife in search of a family and home, Barton complicates the search for the truth, and makes us wonder where our sympathies should lie.
On a minor note, kudos to Penguin Canada for this awesome packaging of the ARC, which came complete with a bag of Skittles, a particularly yummy bit of “evidence”:
Thanks to Penguin Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.