The Girl Before by J. P. Delaney is the latest in a line of thriller ‘Girl’ novels being hyped as the next The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl.
Delaney is the pseudonym of an author who has ‘previously written bestselling fiction under other names.’ If you do a Google search, it will tell you that J.P. Delaney is suspense and thriller writer Tony Strong, who has also written under other pseudonyms and whose works include The Poison Tree, The Death Pit, The Decoy and Tell Me Lies.
The Girl Before focuses on two women who take turns narrating the story – ‘Then: Emma’ and ‘Now: Jane.’
THE GIRL NOW
‘I know it must look odd, given that I didn’t even know Emma. But it seems to me that almost no one really knew her. Everyone I speak to has a different version of what she was like.’ – Jane Cavendish
Jane Cavendish is a single woman looking for an affordable rental home. She can no longer bear to live in the house where she was meant to bring home Isabel, the baby girl she lost following a tragic stillbirth.
A real estate agent suggests Jane look at One Folgate Street – a one bedroom house in Hendon, North London – designed and owned by famous architect and ‘wayward genius’ Edward Monkford.
Jane loves One Folgate Street’s minimalist-style, amazing architecture and state-of-the-art technological features. She’s keen to move in, but there’s a catch. Renting the house is subject to her implicit agreement to specific and stringent rules – no wastepaper baskets, no coasters, no cushions, or knickknacks. Jane must also complete a comprehensive application form asking intrusive questions about her past relationships, and a requirement for three recent photographs. Sounds legit, yeah?
Edward is pleased with Jane’s application and invites her to meet with him. Jane finds Edward dashingly handsome and naturally, her first thought is that she wants to sleep with him. Jane’s obsequiousness pleases Edward and he allows her to move into One Folgate Street.
It’s here that Jane learns about One Folgate Street’s previous resident, Emma Matthews.
THE GIRL BEFORE
‘I realise something. I haven’t had a single flashback or panic attack since I stepped inside the house. It’s so cut off from the outside world, so cocooned, I feel utterly safe. A line from my favourite movie floats into my head. The quietness and the proud look of it. Nothing very bad could happen to you there.’ – Emma Matthews
When we meet Emma, she is having vivid, violent flashbacks of being threatened with a knife during a burglary when she was home alone. Emma tells her devoted boyfriend, Simon, that she wants to move out and they are shown One Folgate Street.
When Emma and Simon meet Edward, Emma spills coffee all over Edward’s drawings. He doesn’t seem to mind and before they know it, their application has been accepted.
But as we learn more about Emma, we start to wonder if we can believe everything she says. When police find an incriminating video on her mobile phone, she claims that she was raped by the men who burgled her home. But something doesn’t add up.
Emma soon gives devastated Simon the flick and embarks on an intense and fairly icky sexual relationship with Edward. Edwards tells her (and later, Jane, when he seduces her, too) that he only has ‘unencumbered relationships’ because ‘you appreciate the other person more, knowing it’s not going to last.’
Not only does Emma’s relationship with Edward not last, but Emma never leaves One Folgate Street. Not alive, at least.
AN EXPERIMENT IN LIVING
It is better to tell a lie and remain in control of the situation than to tell the truth with unpredictable results. Agree or disagree?
One Folgate Street is operated by ultrasonic motion sensors and a system called ‘Housekeeper.’ Housekeeper is very controlling – restricting what you can search for on the internet and turning off the lights and the shower if you don’t complete a regular ‘questionnaire’ that asks complex ethical and moral questions.
When Jane discovers Emma was murdered at One Folgate Street, she is not as concerned as she should be. When she learns that Edward’s wife and son also died while the house was being built and are buried on site, she still isn’t freaked out.
And even finding out that both she and Emma bear a striking resemblance to each other, and to Edward’s ex-wife, isn’t enough to deter her from her ‘unencumbered relationship’ with Edward.
As the story switches between both points of view, it becomes apparent that Edward’s relationship with Emma parallels his new relationship with Jane. He buys them identical pearl necklaces, controls their diet and exercise plans, and loses it when Jane doesn’t put away her toiletries.
WHO IS IN CONTROL?
‘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?’ – Jane Cavendish
For quite a complex plot, The Girl Before is fast-paced and told very simply, which makes it a quick and easy read.
At times I wanted to give up, but I was driven on by my desire to know what happened to Emma. Who killed her? Was it Edward? Simon? Simon’s sleazy best mate? The overly invested policeman? Edward’s stalker? Or maybe the teenager who broke into Emma’s apartment?
Emma’s conversations with Simon, her therapist, the police, and everyone in her life are written without quotation marks, which is a clever tool that makes the reader unsure whether they can trust her version of events.
The heartbreaking description of Jane losing her baby girl makes us really feel for her and this continues in a subplot where she considers the possibility of negligence by the hospital. We want things to work out for Jane, but as she continues to stay at One Folgate Street even when there is a possibility that Edward might have murdered Emma, we begin to wonder what her real motives are. And maybe that’s the whole point – who, in this story, is actually sane?
As with the Girl books that came before, The Girl Before will also hit the big screen, currently being marketed as – ‘soon to be a major motion picture by Ron Howard.’ But ultimately it loses points from me for (spoiler) killing a cat.
The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney is published by Hachette Australia.