As a recent London flat-hunter myself, I started reading The Girl Before by JP Delaney out of sympathy for the characters. Jane, your run-of-the-mill Londoner, wants a fresh start in life, away from her personal tragedy of having a stillborn. Her low budget and high expectations only mean one disappointment after another until she comes across One Folgate Street, this perfect, minimalist house with a surprisingly low rent.
Of course, that’s too good to be true. Her agent tells her that the application for the house is long and difficult, the contract bizarre and the tenant requirements endless. It’s built by a world famous architect who is known to be strict, eccentric and an insane perfectionist.
Jane applies for the house and – spoilers! – gets accepted.
Running along this “main” narrative is another one about Emma, a young woman who, in the past, was going through the same process as Jane. As Jane will soon find out, Emma lived in One Folgate Street before she does, and met a mysterious, tragic end at the bottom of the stairs. Some think it’s an accident, some think it’s foul play.
We soon meet the mysterious architect behind the creation of many innovative minimalist constructions, Edward.
So this is where things start looking fishy for me. I thought it was going to be a standard murder mystery, with a civilian detective trying to figure out a crime in the past. I’m all for that. But the character of Edward (I can’t actually remember his last name, that’s how memorable he is) hints at something… more. He’s a dark, brooding, intelligent and dominating figure, and both female characters instantly fall in love the moment they see him. Not long after Jane/Emma start living at One Folgate Street, Edward begins a relationship with them. He is so irresistible that Emma breaks up with her long term boyfriend Simon to be with him. Simon is a massive arsehole, true, but Emma ditched him before she knew that.
Now, I don’t know anything about the ethical practice for architects, but I think boning your tenants should probably be frowned upon. Plus, Edward goes full 50-shades on our heroines, having rough sex with them, disciplining them and will not let them have their own ways. Jane finds the power balance uncomfortable, and the description of the lovers’ interaction shows clearly abusive relationships. The fact that Emma loves it and even tries to make Edward angry so that she gets punished is too convenient, and somehow degrades the character.
One thing that stood out to me was the way the dual-narrative was treated. With this kind of structure (two characters, first person, parallel story lines in different times), the characters’ voices need to be clearly distinct. Their personalities need to stand out from each other, and the readers should be able to tell who we are reading from a glance.
This is not the case with The Girl Before. Even though the chapter headings show either “Emma” or “Jane”, I couldn’t tell who was telling the story most of time, and had to refer to the headings constantly or rely on the fact that they alternate. Emma and Jane, although having had vastly different life experiences, somehow have the same flat, uninterested, victimised tones. I say victimised because both characters have been through personal traumas, and they feel the need to constantly remind you that they are tragic characters. In Jane’s case, it’s the stillborn of her daughter. In Emma’s case, it’s burglary turned raped turned actually-it’s-not-rape turned adultery turned actually-it-was-rape. The way they describe their relationships with Edward or with anyone in their lives is extremely similar, and judging by their tones, I find it impossible to say that one person is more of anything than the other.
This takes the “thriller” element out of it a little. Normally, with dual-narratives, the thrill of it lies in the danger leaping out of one narrative into another. I.e. character in the present investigating a past crime, while the same criminal creeps up on the character. If done well, the readers could feel the chill from the possibility that the danger could even leap out of the book and into real life. However, with The Girl Before, the similar tones mean that the danger seems to safely lurk on one dimension only. There is no discernible difference between Jane and Emma’s timelines, so whatever threat there is, it’s shut pretty solidly in that one world. Even Edward, who was the number 1 candidate for the crazy serial killer in the book, seems the same between two narratives. We can’t tell if he aged, even though a few years have passed between the narratives. In fact, he tells both character the exact same lines in many many chapters.
The sexual stuff is also quite odd. I can enjoy a good erotica, but the scenes happening here are not very erotic. Edward really likes having sex with those women in tight pearl necklaces and expensive black dresses. Can you imagine how uncomfortable that would be, having to work around all these expensive accessories? The women even describe how the necklaces give them no space to breathe – the implication is that, of course, Edward even likes to control them that way. Imagine taking out a loan from the bank to pay off this really expensive sex toy after you break it. Another bizarre sex scene happens at a black tie architect party, where Edward fingers Jane (or Emma… I don’t actually care anymore) by the wall, causing her to orgasm in public. They were standing around and eating appetiser right before this. And after the sex-on-the-go, Edward walks up to some respectable architect and shaking his hand. I know I’m a anal about germs, but Jane/Emma is getting UTI and Edward’s friend is going to smell like seafood all night now. I know, I must be popular at parties/orgies. All I’m saying is that sex scenes should make a basic amount of sense, otherwise, all they do is take you out of it.
There are a lot of other things that did not work amazingly, such as the murder mystery element (is it even murder mystery if there was no twist?), Emma’s backstory about the burglary/rape, the house itself, but these are the main things that did not agree with me. I thought this must have been written by a woman as a kind of pornographic fantasy, a bit like 50 Shades. Colour me surprised when I found out it’s written by a man and it’s partly about his own stillborn child (as indicated in the acknowledgement). I guess I shouldn’t make any assumptions, but the fact that my assumption turned out to be so wrong was the real psychological thriller for me.
Before I go, I want to share the highlight of the book for me. When Emma is recalling the burglars breaking into her house, she remembers them speaking “street slang”, which is apparently “Chill. Sick, innit.” I’m not sure why the burglars would say that. Who are they telling to chill? And what’s sick about robbing a house? If those words are street, how much street cred have I accumulated? The mystery remains unsolved.
Also, I found a house before I finished the book, and fortunately I don’t have an architect/landlord who wants to choke me with fine jewellery and touch my private parts at dinner parties. I guess that’s a win for me.
The Girl Before – by JP Delany. Published 26 January 2017 by Quercus. 416 pages. RRP: £12.99 Hardcover.