Crimes can be complex things, full of multiple characters from the villain to the victim, the police and their suspects to the reporters who prey upon them all. This novel does a powerful job of capturing how a single afternoon can affect forever the lives of many people.
Her name was Bella. Charming, cherubic and photogenic, her disappearance held London enthralled and tangled the police in knots. No one had seen anything, it seemed, and the sweet little girl had disappeared without a trace.
Her name is Jean. When her husband Glen dies, she finds herself once more at the heart of a media and investigative maelstrom. Jean had been quiet, supportive and faithful the last time the police and press came to the door asking her husband questions. But he’s not here to dictate her responses any more and there are some things she’d like to talk about.
Told from alternating perspectives and moving easily back and forth in time, this is a tale told in dollops. We receive one insight here and before we can digest it, we move to a different scene which shows it in a whole new light. We get another clue there and once more a change in perspective causes us to question its value. At the heart of the story is an afternoon in which a young mother sends her daughter to play in the front garden and when next she looks, the girl is nowhere to be found. But that one fact is all we really know as we take a rather frightening look at just what happens when a large scale crime leaves behind only small scale evidence.
First, we receive the view of Jean, who was quite frankly tired of her husband’s “nonsense”. Married young, childless and trapped in a home with a man who alternated between distant and needy, Jean seems almost simple minded when first we encounter her. Then again, appearances can be deceptive, a fact we learn throughout the story. It is Jean’s husband whom police slowly come to suspect as Bella’s kidnapper, and we watch as Jean’s life slowly unravels in the wake of that suspicion. We see how her neighbors turn from friends to distrustful strangers, how family distances themselves from the distasteful reality of their lives and how she is left alone with a husband who insists on his innocence while everyone else trumpets his guilt.
The above is done in flashbacks. The present for Jean is reporters at the door after her husband’s sudden death and the gentle demands of authority that she stop keeping his secrets. But does Jean really have those secrets? If so, what are they and how long has she known them?
Those questions are what drive investigator DI Bob Sparkes and reporter Kate Waters to Jean’s door. With Glen’s death it is very possible that the only chance of learning what happened to Bella is the widow he left behind. Kate is a lovely woman who uses her charm to get her subjects to relax and tell her everything. Good at her job, she slowly realizes that she may just have met her first real challenge in Jean. Sparkes is an obsessed man who finds himself – for the first time in his long history as a copper – unable to let go of a case. Finding out what happened to Bella is an obsession he will go to any lengths to feed. The two collaborate to try to get to the bottom of the story, especially now that Jean is alone and vulnerable.
Weaving in and out of the tale is Glen, Jean’s husband, a quiet and unassuming man who seems like the next door neighbor all of us know and are comfortable with. Is he, too, a victim of whoever took Bella or is he the perpetrator behind the horror of that afternoon?
The plot doesn’t twist and turn so much as it meanders down a slightly curvy road. It’s not a story that surprises – the reader’s initial guesses will probably prove right in the end. What makes taking the time to read the tale worthwhile is the journey to the answer of what happened to Bella and the people who provide those answers. Jean and Glen induce sympathy as often as they do horror as you watch their ordinary lives turn extraordinarily ugly. The power of the story is the ability it has to make you realize that extraordinary events can happen to the most ordinary-seeming people.
Compelling and addictive more than it is riveting, The Widow slowly sucks the reader in. I think the slow start and leisurely pace might be a turnoff for those looking for an instant thrill, but if you are willing to put in the work the payoff, in the end, is worth it. It certainly left me thinking about it long after I put the book down.