Crime Fiction

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The Girl Before

This is a gripping and creepy novel by J.P. Delaney.
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A while ago I was in the middle of reading a rather heavy historical novel set in the late Middle Ages, so I wasn’t really looking for another book. But as I was idly browsing the library shelf The Girl Before by J P Delaney caught my eye.

J P Delaney is the pseudonym of the author Anthony Capella, an award-winning author who also writes under the names of Anthony Strong, Tony Strong and Jonathan Holt. Born in Uganda, Africa, he was educated at St Peter’s College, Oxford, where he graduated with a First in English Literature.

Now to the book. I can’t say that the front cover attracted me particularly, this photo of a rather stark interior (the relevance will become clear as you read on) but the write-up on the back sounded intriguing.

“Jane stumbles on the rental opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to live in an ultra-minimalist house (the one on the front cover) designed by an enigmatic architect, on condition she abides by a list of exacting rules. But when she discovers that the previous tenant, Emma, met a mysterious death there, Jane starts to wonder if her own story will be a re-run of the girl before.”

The author Peter James describes it as: “A wonderful portrayal of psychological obsession at it creepiest best.”

A few pages in I started to think: ‘I can’t read this, too creepy and scary. I’ll just read a few more pages, then put it down.’ A few more pages, my foot! Before I knew it, I was half way through. It was very gripping.

The narrative follows the lives of the two girls in alternating chapters. They have many similarities but also differences. Physically they could be sisters, but Jane is older, vastly more sophisticated, better educated and more mature than Emma. They both have a severe trauma in their recent past – and I won’t go into what those traumas are, you will find out as you read. They both start a relationship with the enigmatic architect/designer of the house and instigator of the stringent house rules. It was not until a good long way into the book that I suddenly realised that there is no indication of the timespan – months, years? – between the two girls.

It soon becomes clear to us, the reader, and to Jane, that there's something fishy about Emma’s death. And here we enter shifting sands. Sometimes you think: ‘That one must be the culprit’ but a little later you suddenly wonder: ‘Is it that one instead, maybe?’. And later still: ‘Maybe she did it herself, or it was an accident’.

The writing style is quite straightforward. A linear narrative in each timeline. But after a while it becomes noticeable that the style is neatly fitted to each girl’s personality and background. The younger girl, Emma, speaks and thinks with much less precision, using more slang and grammatically incorrect wordings.

Slowly the emphasis shifts and you begin to see that neither of the women are quite what they seemed at the beginning. One is a pathological liar and the other manipulative. And they both become increasingly unlikeable. As I read on, the book created a feeling of unease and even dread. The ending was very enigmatic and I still wonder what actually happened. I think that depending on your feelings you can interpret the last page in various different ways.

Now, did I like the book? Half way through I would have said yes, but this feeling of unease which it created towards the second half was pretty unpleasant, so now I might have to say that I did not actually enjoy it. The story was creepy but the real unease came from the minimalistic house itself. It was not just minimalistic but also futuristic in that inbuilt software controlled everything even down to supplying water or food only when the occupant had performed certain tasks. That was the really unpleasant part.

It is therefore very difficult for me to grade this book. It was well written to create such a feeling of suspense, even threat. So, for that I must give it at least 4-Stars. But personally, I wouldn’t read it again, so from that point of view I can only give it 1-Star.

What I will say is, read it and make up your own mind!
Freyja

Why not come along to the next meeting of Oundle Library’s Crime Fiction Book Group on Friday 21 June @ 2.30pm? We’ll swap notes about the books and authors we’ve read and enjoyed over the past few weeks, as well as the ones we haven’t! It’s all very informal. No ‘literary criticism’ and no set reading list. Everyone welcome.