Sunday, 5 February 2017

Book Review: THE GIRL BEFORE by J P Delaney

The Girl Before

Author: J P Delaney
Hachette Australia
February 2017

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Please make a list of every possession you consider essential to your life.

The request seems odd, even intrusive—and for the two women who answer, the consequences are devastating.

Reeling from a traumatic break-in, Emma wants a new place to live. But none of the apartments she sees are affordable or feel safe. Until One Folgate Street. The house is an architectural masterpiece: a minimalist design of pale stone, plate glass, and soaring ceilings. But there are rules. The enigmatic architect who designed the house retains full control: no books, no throw pillows, no photos or clutter or personal effects of any kind. The space is intended to transform its occupant—and it does.

After a personal tragedy, Jane needs a fresh start. When she finds One Folgate Street she is instantly drawn to the space—and to its aloof but seductive creator. Moving in, Jane soon learns about the untimely death of the home’s previous tenant, a woman similar to Jane in age and appearance. As Jane tries to untangle truth from lies, she unwittingly follows the same patterns, makes the same choices, crosses paths with the same people, and experiences the same terror, as the girl before. 

My thoughts:

Clean, attractive and affordable apartments in London are as difficult to find as hens' teeth. One Folgate Street is an exception - designed by Edward Monkford, an architect famous for minimalistic designs, it is brand new, modern and as secure as a fortress. However, it comes with a catch: a long list of strict rules and regulations prospective tenants have to agree to that would put most people off. No children, no pets, no books, no clutter, no rugs on the floor or personal furniture, just to name a few, with inspections carried out at the owner's whim to ensure compliance. Even the lighting, shower and internet services are controlled by an intricate electronic system rather than the tenant. Who could possibly ever agree to such ridiculous demands?
No one who lives in this house should expect privacy. You signed that away, remember?

For Emma ("then"), it seems a small price to pay for state of the art security that would help her feel safe again after a terrifying home invasion she endured in her old apartment. And for Jane ("now"), it would mean a clear break from her old life after the stillbirth of her baby daughter. Two women, two years apart, using One Folgate Street as a fresh start. Initially things are going well, until Jane realises that her predecessor has died in this very apartment. And that Emma's life had some creepy similarities to her own. Suddenly One Folgate Street no longer seems like a safe haven. The very features of the house that once seemed to make life easier, now seem limiting and controlling. In fact, at times the house feels downright threatening, withholding essentials like running water or power if Jane does not comply. As if it had a mind of its own. As if it knew exactly what Jane is up to. 

It’s like the house didn’t want Simon to come round for our talk and this is its way of punishing me. It’s a fortress, I’d said to Simon. But what if the house itself decides not to protect me? How safe am I really?

Someone is watching, and waiting, and Jane is becoming more and more worried that Emma's death was not an accident. 

Someone has died in suspicious circumstances every time a Monkford Partnership building nears completion.

Can Jane work out what happened to Emma before the same fate lies in store for her?

The Girl Before contains (amongst other things) a fascinating premise: do we ever really know who has lived in our rental before us, what these walls have seen? Do we really want to know? With its slightly creepy setting of a house that seems like a living, breathing, menacing entity, the novel sets the scene for a taut, claustrophobic and original psychological thriller narrated by the voices of two different vulnerable women, who may or may not be reliable narrators. With several clever twists both in the "then" and the "now", there are a few slack-jawed moments until the reader realises that in this novel, you cannot trust anyone. In fact, as layer after layer is stripped away, and characters are laid bare in front of us, warts and all, we may question every assumption we have made. Even the house, which is as much of a living entity as the characters that inhabit it, is deceptive - safe haven or death trap? You will have to read on to find out. And as the author plays us just as the house plays its tenants, we know that nothing in this book will be straight forward.

I really enjoyed the different tactics the author employed to create tension - the tight and claustrophobic encounters with the house's electronic system, the little excerpts from the rental agreement at the end of chapters, the "then" and "now" approach. And whilst I did find the ending a little bit of an anti-climax, there is that little extra surprise at the end that seems to be the hallmark of Domestic Noir. All in all, a very clever psychological thriller, which will keep you guessing until the end.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. 

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