All kinds of love

All kinds of love

The Widow
Fiona Barton
Random House
2016, pp 320

A child vanishes into thin air while playing in her front garden, leaving the mother distraught and the police puzzled.

On the bestseller’s list, Fiona Barton’s The Widow is a psychological thriller. Her own varied experience as a reporter has come in rather handy. The subject is unfortunately a rampant one. A child goes missing, whisked away from under her mother’s nose, leaving the self-appointed Crime Watch neighbour looking silly and the police clueless. There’s an expert storytelling at work here, as skein after skein of psychological processes are unwound. What remains at the end is the bare truth, shrivelled and unsightly.

Several themes are explored here. Dawn, a young, single mother who seems in need of mothering herself, the aching sense of inadequacy that overcomes a childless couple, porn on the internet as a trap for the misfits of society, the paparazzi nature of the press and their unsavoury race to get the story that would jack up sales, and the dark underbelly of a perfectly normal marriage.

Glen and Jean Taylor are an ordinary couple. Jean is willing to be her husband’s understudy. Her husband is cleverer, better, just a bit bossy, and extremely unwilling to ever be at fault. There’s that business at the bank for which he gets thrown out, some hushed murmurs of internet misuse. Nothing that fazes Glen. Excuses come tumbling. His boss never liked him in the first place. And anyway, he wants to run his own business. He begins driving delivery vans as a stop-gap measure. Bella Elliot, a 2-year-old goes missing.

Nearly 5 months go by without any information, except that a blue van was sighted on the road that Bella lived in. Glen drives a blue van but was nowhere near the crime area according to his log. Inspector Sparkes spends restless weeks unable to find even a single tip-off. And then Glen’s name is dropped. Like a water diviner, Sparkes has an instinct about Glen. He just knows “they had found their man”.

Glen’s chequered employment history is probed. That leads to confiscation of his computer, which provides a world of information on his prowling chat rooms, his sexual tendencies. Between Glen and Jean there’s a growing distance caused by Glen’s “nonsense”. Jean smells the darkness and danger but unequipped to deal with it, calls it “nonsense” to make it more manageable.

To outsiders they are still like two peas in a pod. Haunted by Bella and frustrated, Sparkes jumps his guns and brings Glen to court. A crafty attorney and a lack of water-tight evidence leave Glen a free man. To rub it in, Glen files and wins a suit of half a million pounds against the police bringing shame and disgrace to Sparkes who is taken off the case.

The story could end here but doesn’t. Give a man a long enough rope, and he is sure to hang himself. Some habits cannot be overthrown, particularly if one is in self-denial. Now begins the long, lengthy game between the predator and his prey. In a crucifyingly slow process, chat-rooms are trawled, identities untangled, and much is uncovered about Glen, but the leading evidence is still lacking.

It is Bella’s father, who casually mentions seeing Dawn in a chatroom that gives new impetus to a drooping investigation. Now, it becomes easier to establish a link between Glen’s chatroom identity and naïve Dawn and her laying too many details of private information bare in public domain.

There is a build-up of excitement as the CCTV camera around Bella’s school shows Glen in his car waiting, watching as Dawn picks Bella up from her nursery. Sparkes is flush. His hot breath is almost on Glen’s nape when news arrives that Glen is dead. Just like that. All that adrenaline rush drops with a whoosh.

His exhilaration is now drained. It is an open and shut case. With the criminal dead and the victim missing, there’s hardly anything to be done. There’s the bitter taste of feeling cheated just when success was so close. Glen on a shopping trip with wife, stumbles, falls and is fatally hit by a bus. We too as readers need a moment to digest this. Surely this can’t be the end, we say.

Our nerves are much too tightly strung for that. Wait, there’s the widow left. Now, Sparkes begins a slow teasing out of information from Jean Taylor. We see her in her varied facets — Jean the subservient wife, Jean, the childless woman, Jean who wilfully closes her eyes, and finally Jean who is goaded into action.

The conclusion is tame, the chase long over. A gentle end. Somehow dissatisfying, for our blood is still pounding. A compelling book for it really begins in our head, after the last page has been read.

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