The Girl Before is a psychological thriller, and JP Delaney’s debut novel (although I believe it’s a debut under a pseudonym from an author who’s been published previously). I bought it on a whim when it was brand new, and picked it up this month as a much-needed palate-cleansing thriller. Probably not many people consider thrillers palate cleansers, but the good ones are quick reads that run lightly through the gamut of emotions and plot devices and seem to work for me as a reset button on my reading mood, which is helpful at the end of a long month.
About the book: Edward Monkford is a mysterious, slightly creepy, totally obsessive architect, famed for his minimalist designs. He’s built an extraordinary house in London that can be rented cheap–which attracts a lot of attention to the space, but only a rigorous application, a personal interview, and a lot of luck can secure a new prospective tenant access to the home. There is a list of rules a mile long for how new residents are to live in the space, and the fact that the house collects constant data on its inhabitants is enough to discourage some potential renters. But Emma and her boyfriend, Simon, make the cut and take up residence at One Folgate Street, only for things to go awry very quickly. Three years later, Jane is granted permission to live in the space, and is sucked into the mystery of Emma’s unsolved death as her own life is increasingly entwined with Edward Monkford and One Folgate Street. Jane tracks down all of Emma’s old connections, finding odd parallels to her own life in places, and glaring inconsistencies in others. Her involvement–or perhaps her presence alone–sets danger in motion, and soon it’s not only Emma’s life on the line.
“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?”
About the layout: The first hundred pages or so of this book continually impressed me. The narration starts out with two alternating perspectives (Then: Emma, and Now: Jane). These two main characters are both distinctly different and beautifully parallel. Right away, the two characters are set apart by their private circumstances, and the sections are also easily distinguishable by their dialogue–the Then: Emma sections do not use quotation marks for spoken words, a tactic that both helps set her apart and gives her sections a feel of memory rather than physical presence, which is fitting because her story has already ended several years before Jane’s starts. Once the two women are separated in the reader’s mind, however, their stories become a tennis match of back-and-forth rallies–one of the women tours One Folgate Street. The other one decides to apply for residence there, and sends off the application packet. The first woman’s application packet is accepted. The second woman moves into the apartment. Etc. There are so many similarities between what happens to the two women regarding the house and its architect that many of the sections seem to pick up right where the previous one left off. The only times both stories are narrated in full detail are to display repetition in Edward Monkford’s habits. Futhermore, the unlabelled chapters are also divided with headers featuring odd questions from the application packet that both pique the reader’s interest and pertain to the content ahead. It’s a gorgeous and effective format that’s both easy to read and logistically pleasing.
I will admit, though, that the tension is mild, at best. For the first two thirds of the book there’s intrigue and foreboding rather than anything really terrifying or dramatic. The reader learns early on that Emma has died mysteriously. The reader is also guided to believe that Jane’s story is following a similar, disastrous path. That, and Edward’s growing creepiness, are the driving forces through much of the book, rather than any immediate danger.
“I can’t go back, I say. […] When something’s gone that wrong, you can’t ever put it right.”
Seeing the ending coming a mile away is one of the biggest downfalls of a book for me, but that’s not exactly what happens here. There’s a good amount of misdirection, which leaves the possibility of surprises. If the reader can figure out which point of the story to focus on, the plot twists aren’t ground-breaking, but neither are they overt. All of the clues are given before they puzzle is assembled, which means that prediction is possible. But the narration is multi-layered enough that even when a prediction plays out correctly the reader is propelled onward to see how all of the misdirections will fall into place.
My problem with this book did not stem from predictability, but rather from a let-down with the final reveals. The climax of the story passes quickly and with few shocks. Once the true culprit is made known, the clues are obvious. Even that didn’t bother me. It was the language usage at the very end of the book that finally made me dock a star. The narration repeatedly tries to nudge the reader into shock, using phrases like, “And then I finally told him the truth,” and “This was my intent all along,” followed by rather bland reveals that seem to matter little after death has struck. I did retain a lot of respect for the choices the characters each made at the end–the book wasn’t wrapped up too neatly, but everyone went the way their character seemed destined to go, be it for better or worse. It was the fact that the story kept trying to make me think something grand and outlandish was happening when there were only bland, minor details left to be explained. And yet, as I mentioned, I remain content with each character’s ending.
“You can make your surroundings as polished and empty as you like. But it doesn’t really matter if you’re still messed up inside. And that’s all anyone’s looking for really, isn’t it? Someone to take care of the mess inside our heads?”
It also bothers me a bit when psychological thrillers draw on the trope of dangerous men preying on women who look a certain way. (There’s definitely a Fifty Shades vibe in this book. I’m recommending adult audiences only, here). I can understand how it might be startling and strange to meet someone who looks very much like a lost loved one, but matching victims seems like such an obvious tactic.
Furthermore, secrets are unrealistically unguarded here. Everyone involved in Emma’s life is just helpful enough to provide the next clue for Jane–the psychologist, the retired cop, the ex-lovers; everyone’s willing to share a name or personal detail. Are real people so quick to share other peoples’ private information?
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I didn’t love the characters of this book, but I was okay with that because I don’t think the reader is meant to. At some points, in fact, I was truly disgusted by some of the things they said or did or even thought. And yet the construction of the book was laid out so perfectly that I didn’t mind some questionable content. I don’t think this is a book for everyone, but for readers who look as much between the lines as at them, the style of the formatting in this book is worth any imperfections in the story itself. I believe this is going to be made into a movie, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for it, as well as for future works by this author.
- Whether you like The Girl Before or not, if you’re looking for a great mystery/thriller with an unbelievable ending, it’s Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough. This one has a slower, more literary start, but again, all the clues are woven in and you still won’t guess where this one’s heading. If surprises in books are your thing, this is the book for you.
- Megan Miranda’s The Perfect Stranger is another good recent release involving a unique home, a death, and an unexpected look-alike. This time, though, I fully support the use of nearly identical women because it makes an excellent plot point.
Coming up next: I’m currently reading Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the recent(ish) sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird. I may or may not review it in full. I don’t usually post complete reviews of classics–my thoughts on To Kill a Mockingbird will go up in my monthly wrap-up and I’m not sure yet whether to post for its sequel or whether it makes more sense to simply review it more briefly alongside its classic counterpart. I’ll decide as I’m reading. Either way, you’ll see my thoughts on Go Set a Watchman soon. And after that, I’ll be starting a new fantasy trilogy and reviewing its first book, A Discovery of Witches, as usual.
What are you reading to wrap up the month of May? Anyone else use thrillers as palate cleansers?
The Literary Elephant