The Child by Fiona Barton

Hardcover, 336 pages
Expected publication: June 27th 2017 by Berkley Books

As an old house is demolished in a gentrifying section of London, a workman discovers a tiny skeleton, buried for years. For journalist Kate Waters, it’s a story that deserves attention. She cobbles together a piece for her newspaper, but at a loss for answers, she can only pose a question: Who is the Building Site Baby?

As Kate investigates, she unearths connections to a crime that rocked the city decades earlier: A newborn baby was stolen from the maternity ward in a local hospital and was never found. Her heartbroken parents were left devastated by the loss.

But there is more to the story, and Kate is drawn—house by house—into the pasts of the people who once lived in this neighborhood that has given up its greatest mystery. And she soon finds herself the keeper of unexpected secrets that erupt in the lives of three women—and torn between what she can and cannot tell…

 

I absolutely adored Fiona Barton’s debut novel, The Widow, so I was all-too eager to get my little hands on this one when I heard about The Child. Of course, that’s the problem with not reading blindly, isn’t it–with already being familiar with an author’s previous works: you go in with expectations, undoubtedly heightening your expectations on the author, and it doesn’t always pan out. When that happens, those reads seem to fall harder than if you’d never met their predecessors in the first place. But that didn’t happen here! This follow-up was awesome! Unfortunately, that’s what happened here.

Not too far into Fiona Barton’s sophomore novel, The Child, I realized that this one wasn’t nearly as clever as her debut, The Widow, and wasn’t nearly as captivating either. Read as a “rush job,” without the finesse and nuance of her previous novel. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of the follow-up to a blockbuster movie–you know, the ones where you can tell the studio was just rushing to churn the next one out to capitalize on the fanfare of the last one.

Have you ever read a novel and just knew you could pick out the characters on the street if you saw them? Their mannerisms are so real, their dialogue so witty, so poignant, so enthralling, that you recall a whole slew of their quotes from memory. These characters come alive on the page and delight you, make you want to be them—or at least kidnap them and keep them as your new bestie. Well, you won’t find that here, people. These characters didn’t saunter around, exuding their very essence across the page like in the previous novel.

Though, to be fair, it’s not all cons in this one. One of the better aspects of this novel is that Barton uses the format of short chapters to swiftly draw her reader in and keep them turning pages. It’s a style that I now recognize her for. That technique makes the read seem shorter, faster, and is a true hallmark of the modern-day thriller, which was once again used brilliantly here. Well, to an extent. Of all things, The Child was chalked full of filler. I could almost palpably feel myself ripping at the cotton-like filler to get down to the meat, the core of the novel. Some of the chapters were completely useless to the plot as a whole and slowed the read down to a near-screeching halt, contradictory to the goals of the short chapters, placing The Child very squarely into the “cozy thriller” category and loosening the tauntness that readers look for in a good mystery thriller.

All I needed for complete this novel was a cuppa Earl Grey and a biscuit. For some, this’ll work brilliantly, but I can see the flatly written characters turning off character piece buffs, while the added family drama will turn off mystery thrill seekers, stripping away its well-roundedness and landing this one in a category for a very specific kind of reader. It’s not that the characters here were unlikeable, more like they were just silly. Crying at the slightest stimulus. Sighing and huffing and wedge-driving over men who, for the majority of the read, weren’t much more than cliché sketches of cheaters and adulterers themselves. There were moments where I actually imagined them fawning and fanning themselves at the thought of these men, swooning in their own misery, and that made the read feel long, like I was trudging through used Kleenex the entire time.

Let’s go ahead and address this here, shall we?

There’s so much chatter in the book world about (female) characters who are unlikeable for being shallow or crass—The Girl on the Train immediately comes to mind—but these characters in The Child were equally unlikeable for a completely different reason: because they were so spineless, weak and lacking of any motivation that I could get behind for the vast majority of the novel.

**SPOILER** You can’t toss in driving motivation in the last quarter of the novel and expect me to suddenly care; no, I’ve already been too turned off by the past 300 pages to care at this point: Writer 101. **END SPOILER**

There were a lot of tears in this book, even moments of rushing out of a grocery store, abandoning their grocery cart, because the noise was too unbearable. These characters all needed a swift kick in the ass if you ask me.

Hmm, and the ending. I won’t give anything away, but I will definitely say that I’m not sure how I feel about it. It could’ve been a phenomenal ending, but it was executed poorly and via unlikeable characters, so, in the end, it just felt like a hastily done soap opera ending. There were loads of other sections that could have been scrapped in favor of perfecting the ending, believe me—and the fact that the ending was held up by sappy, weak-willed characters just ruined it, like spilling liquid on a watercolor painting. **MILD SPOILER** I get the feeling that it was meant to be a tear-jerker ending but came off as vaguely melodramatic the way that it was handled, **END SPOILER** which, all in all, landed The Child with a average score of 3 stars ***

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Fiona BartonMy career has taken some surprising twists and turns over the years. I have been a journalist – senior writer at the Daily Mail, news editor at the Daily Telegraph, and chief reporter at The Mail on Sunday, where I won Reporter of the Year at the National Press Awards, gave up my job to volunteer in Sri Lanka and since 2008, have trained and worked with exiled and threatened journalists all over the world.
But through it all, a story was cooking in my head.

The worm of this book infected me long ago when, as a national newspaper journalist covering notorious crimes and trials, I found myself wondering what the wives of those accused really knew – or allowed themselves to know. It took the liberation of my career change to turn that fascination into a tale of a missing child, narrated by the wife of the man suspected of the crime, the detective leading the hunt, the journalist covering the case and the mother of the victim.

Much to my astonishment and delight, The Widow is available now in the UK, and around the world in the coming months. However, the sudden silence of my characters feels like a reproach and I am currently working on a second book. My husband and I are living the good life in south-west France, where I am writing in bed, early in the morning when the only distraction is our cockerel, Sparky, crowing.

The Widow by Fiona Barton

Hardcover, 336 pages
Published February 16th 2016 by NAL

This debut novel hit the ground running. No doubt the packing, publicity and (yet again) comparison to Gone Girl—I mean, how many Gone Girls can there be! (but I guess we do keep falling for it, so it works)—have helped to propel it onto the NYT. It’s often a bit like watching a toddler on a tricycle when you buy one of those novels, you know. It’s like, can the work ride on its own right out of the gate, or will it be wobbly on the training wheels that the publisher and public expectations have placed on it, needing them as props? Will it fall over altogether? I’m happy to say that this one held its own!

          The Widow had an excellent start that immediately grabbed me. It was consistent in its format, if not always fluid in the reading of it, and had an element of creepiness to it that warranted its label “psychological” thriller when used. Some may not like “creepy” or the way that it was offered here, but I LOVE it because it’s so much harder to pull off than “scary” or “gross.” “Creepy” toys with the mind in its subtlety. Honestly, I felt chills and echoes from “The Yellow Wallpaper,” one of my all-time favorite short stories, so this one had me from the start, and it was up to Barton to keep me hooked all the way through. She did.

Control is a major theme in this one, and I loved that because it takes control of the author’s hand to be able to portray that in the way intended and in all of the different ways that it came up here. Here you have a ditsy housewife—who maybe isn’t so ditsy—who’s controlled by her husband (to an alarming and almost sinister extent), by the reporter and the media, by everyone in her world, really. Until. And it’s that “until” that shapes the novel in a lot of ways. The Widow is not a novel where the crime is revealed up front, thankfully. In fact, for the majority of the novel, you’re not really sure of what happened, and in what sequence and why. That’s the “thrill” of it; it allowed for a wonderful building of subtle tension.

There are splashes of humor and pondering from Jean’s thoughts that often border on disturbing when not surprisingly clear and aware. I even liked that the chapters skipped around, never in chronological order. It made the read a little more “thrilling,” not know which voice or occurrence would happen next, until the end when it got a bit jumbled for me for some reason. Navi followers know that I’m a stickler for voice and dialogue, and The Widow had that in its own right. It’s not that the voices were particularly unique to each other, though Jean and Glen’s were, but that they were all so deeply embedded in a place (London) that the novel had a true concept of setting.

I picked this one up not sure of what expectations to have, this being a debut and all, and that’s a delicious thing in itself: being able to go into something clean of prejudice or bias. The Widow had resonance. It offered those shards of thought, of dialogue, of wit that ring so true that they’re undeniable and, to some, possibly even a little off-putting. This was a great debut from Barton, and her experience in journalism came through. She offered insight into the world of breaking news media with a naturalness that can only come from a creature in their own element. You can always tell a fish out of water when they write about things they’re really not familiar with, and this novel did not have that issue. I thoroughly enjoyed this work and would read another from her. This novel is not a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants thrill ride; hint, that’s why they put the word “psychological” in there. I will say that I wouldn’t mind a bit more closure on this one, though; that’s all I’ll say about that. Easily four stars. 4 stars ****