Published by Quercus
I can hardly remember a time before the ‘Girl’ books. You know the ones, you’ve seen them stacked on bookshop shelves the length and breadth of the country since the dawn of Gone Girl. Never mind that the Girl of the titles is always something of a misnomer, (she’s generally a grown woman going through troubling times or hiding a dark secret) the books are usually well received, page-turning thrillers that keep you guessing until almost the last page. Surprisingly, since you’d think they’d be very much running out of steam at this stage, The Girl Before follows its predecessors admirably, its author JP Delaney having successfully constructed a well-paced, engrossing tale of two women living parallel lives.
Jane is on the hunt for a new place to live. Recent circumstances have dictated a change of lifestyle for her, and also heralded a new fearlessness that emboldens her to apply for the tenancy of a very unique house that requires strict rules that must be followed to the letter and regular surveys to complete on the house’s features. Jane’s interest is piqued not only by the unusual rental conditions but also by the very reasonable price tag, so submits the equally as unusual questionnaire to her rental agent to forward to the landlord for approval.
Ah, the landlord. He’s an enigmatic wunderkind architect, whose young family was lost in tragic circumstances during the building of the house. Since then he has had a single focus; a dedication to the creation of perfect, minimal, award-winning spaces. The house for rent is devoid of any decoration or clutter – the tenant must keep things tidy and ordered, everything has its place and the places are all concealed.
Jane is accepted as the new tenant after an interview with the enigmatic architect, who is of course in possession of a tantalising charisma and very attractive physique. She settles into her new, sparse smart home, which is controlled by her own personal computer code, right down to the computerised key and security system. A run-in with a man leaving a bunch of flowers weekly at her doorstep prompts her to look further into the history of the house, and thus she discovers the fate of the previous tenant – Emma.
The story is told from the points of view of the two women who have occupied the house, with overlapping narratives that are neatly twisted together like a double helix to make a whole. Emma’s chapters are titled ‘Then’, while Jane’s are ‘Now’, and it’s soon plain to see that they mirror each other in a most sinister way. Each narrative is intimate and assured, and this way the reader knows more about each of them than they do themselves, and can therefore spot warning signs and red flags when the current protagonist is still in comfortable ignorance. This makes for a thrilling, page-turning read, and draws parallels between the creepy surveillance in the house and the reader as voyeur.
There’s plenty to enjoy about this book; it’s a fast, entertaining read with two well realised characters and a great plot, but one complaint I have is the architect character Edward, who to me seemed like an utter weirdo control-freak who would (should) scare off any rational woman from the off. He articulates things that only a made up person (or a robot) would; he doesn’t read books because ‘he said it was to do with the words on facing pages not being symmetrical’. See, weird! Perhaps it’s because the author is a heterosexual male who thinks women like that sort of thing (a little like the perplexing character Christian Grey perhaps, of Fifty Shades fame), because the other male character – the ex-boyfriend of Emma, is a much more rounded, believable character, with all his flaws.
In addition to the main storyline, each narrative goes into the painful backstories of the two women, offering up a great deal of food for thought that doesn’t come easily to your typical page turner (but, to be fair is quite consistent in many other ‘Girl’ books). If you’re flying off on a holiday this summer bring another book as well as this one – you’ll finish it before the plane reaches its destination.
First published in The Tuam Herald on June 14, 2017.