Is this the new ‘Girl on the Train’?
‘Please make a list of every possession you consider essential to your life’ so begins The Girl Before, a psychological thriller by J.P. Delaney, out this month and already destined for the silver screen in a film directed by Ron Howard.
I was given an advance copy by Nash at the lovely Much Ado Books which has a shelf full of such things for members of its friends’ club. The novel comes after the huge success of female-centred psychological thrillers Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, though, as Nash pointed out, it would be nice to see something with ‘woman’ in the title for a change.
A lot of the action for The Girl Before takes place inside a special minimalist house in London created by an obsessive architect. This rich, attractive man has a very exacting set of rules for the women who end up living there (sounding a bit Fifty Shades?) and the present day tenant in the story finds it hard to shake troubling echoes of the titular girl before (sounding a bit Rebecca?)
The house itself is creepily Big Brother-like with a system that knows the occupant’s internet searches and what they’ve eaten and can withhold vital functions until they complete a task agreed in their contract. It’s not long before you just know it’s going to wind up with blood splashed across all that pristine white marble.
Of course, with an attractive man in the set up, the lines between business and pleasure inevitably become blurred, as do the links between the present day protagonist’s experience and that of her predecessor. The time shift is carried off by means of alternating first-person narrators – a device most recently familiar from The Girl on the Train, though it’s rather slicker here.
A strength of the book is that the reveal in the alternating chapters does not go past – present as you’d expect, rather you read the present day Jane’s experience in her relationship with her lover and the all-knowing house, then read a worryingly similar scenario that happened to Emma – ‘the girl before’. It all gets creepy, then downright scary. We find out the past before our increasingly suspicious heroine does, creating plenty of dramatic irony.
Each chapter is headed by a question from a survey our hot architect uses to select his tenants. These are psychological and moral conundrums which are interesting to answer yourself and they get darker as the book progresses.
The girl from the past – Emma – was better drawn for me than Jane, who I found it much harder to get a feel for, partly because she is a lot more buttoned up. There are plenty of times you’ll want to yell at the one of the women in the book (make sure you’re not on public transport at the time). I mean, when can letting a man choose your food and your clothes ever bode well for a relationship?
But then the women, and indeed the men (the architect and Emma’s boyfriend), in The Girl Beforeare each damaged and vulnerable in some way. The back stories of the four key characters all involve a terrible trauma. Or do they? Just who is a real victim here and who is playing one?
I guessed the twist a little before it came but not far enough out to spoil the ending. In fact there is more than one surprise as we unravel how far the lines of manipulation go. It will also make you question how wise it is to pursue perfection.
So is it the new Girl on a Train? Well the heroine is nowhere near as interesting and I found The Girl Before a little derivative of various things I’d read before but it’s certainly a page turner with some satisfying psychological twists and a pervading sense of danger coming from… you’re not fully sure where. With Ron Howard directing it should make a cracking film. As a bonus, it’ll make you feel a whole lot better about having an overflowing washing basket and dirty dishes in the sink!
The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney, published by Quercus Publishing, is available in hardback now.