Having (somehow) not picked up Fiona Barton's debut The Widow last year despite the fervent admiration that went around for it, I jumped at the chance to read her second book early. When I finished after two intense sittings, I scrambled to the book store and quickly devoured her first as well!
I do enjoy reading thrillers, but generally I feel let down by them by the time I finish. The plots tend to be too predictably easy to solve—my personal rule is that if I've figured out the "twist" within 50 pages, it isn't a very strong narrative. (The downfall of the rule being that I have to read the whole book to find out if I'm right or not!) But Barton's books felt very different from that model of storytelling.
The characters are just as crucial as the plot, or perhaps even more so, and while this may seem like a small detail or even an obvious statement, I feel that it is something that is lacking from a lot of thrillers on the market. There is a lot of care put into these characters—you get to know them and through them you feel the story more than just read it.
For me, that is what makes a story. It isn't just the straight telling of a narrative, it is how the characters lead you to their story, through their eyes, and through them you fall into the story and find yourself truly caring about what happens.
The Child centers around the skeleton of an unidentified infant that is uncovered at a construction site in London. There are four alternating perspectives that swap between each chapter:
Kate, an intrepid reporter, takes an interest in the case and starts writing about it and asking questions.
Angela reads the articles and is certain the skeleton is her first born child, who was stolen right out of her hospital room decades earlier.
Emma sees the articles too and she is completely shaken, fearing some deep-buried secret from her past may be coming back to haunt her.
And Jude, Emma's mother, who only recently came back into her daughter's life after throwing her out when she was sixteen.
Kate's digging will uncover the connections between these women, the past, and the secrets they've hidden from each other and themselves.
There are a few recurring characters in Barton's books, but it isn't really a series; the story isn't about the reporter, Kate, and her dogged search for the truth, though both books include her and she is integral in both. Each book instead felt very much like its own entity.
Similarly, both books alternate perspectives of characters, but while temporal fluctuation between the past and the present was a crucial factor in The Widow, The Child often marks the how the same time passes for each character—a different but very effective technique that kept me turning the pages!
By no means are these characters perfect—they are flawed, sometimes even despicable—but they are human and their mistakes make them real and relatable.
By the time I got to the conclusion of The Child, I realized I'd been holding my breath a lot, waiting to see what would happen—I was really emotionally invested in these characters! That's what good writing will do and it's worth running out to get Barton's books to see what I mean.
This post is part of The Child's release blog tour! Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this, Berkley Publishing!
You can visit Fiona Barton online at fionabartonauthor.com and on Twitter @figbarton. Join the conversation using #TheChild.
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It begins with a girl.
No, it begins with a mother, and how that girl thinks of her, wants to please her, wants to be her, hates her.
How to fill the void left by a mother who can’t seem to get it right? Do you find a new mother?
Be your own mother? Create a mother with art, with work, with the barriers you put up against the world?
This is a book about mothers, but it is also a book about identity and how much of that identity, especially for girls, is based upon mothers. It is about individuality, about growing up (or not) and finding your place in the world, and then filling that space with something.
Esther, who goes by S, wants to be a subversive, or at least some kind, of artist and she’s recently broken up with her boyfriend. Now she feels the need to prove herself, to do something big—something with meaning that will get her noticed. But she also needs a job, so she becomes a live-in nanny for Lady, an aspiring writer recently separated from her (very-rich) husband, and the mother of two boys, a young toddler, Devin, and a teenager, Seth.
What follows is an entangled narrative, each character wrapped up in so much more than just the simple timeline of the book. The past beats heavily in them, even if they don’t know why.
While the book is focused on the actions of the characters in the present, it is swirling with the tensions of the past. Both Lady and S have strong connections to their mothers that they can’t ignore, and they are constantly trying to come to terms with their damaging upbringings, even as their current situations spiral out of control.
Lady is estranged from her mother and her issues and insecurities run deep. Her mom seems to be the main reason why she’s writing a memoir, though she can't quite admit that to herself, and though she’s living the high life in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills now, that is not at all where she came from.
S’s parents are divorced and it seems like S takes on more of the parenting role when she’s around her mom—cleaning up her apartment, getting rid of the alcohol, confiscating a bunny that is sure to get her mom evicted. But still, S clings to her mother, wanting to know who she is, or perhaps why she turned out the way she did, even taking on her identity as part of her new art project. S dresses sloppily like her mom, acts carefree, speaks like her, and drinks wildly. The “S” that Lady knows is not Esther.
And then there’s Seth. He’s never said a single word despite being completely normal otherwise, and he vibrates with a strange energy, like a bomb ready to go off at any point. His mom has protected him his whole life, kept him to herself, but it has become smothering and he wants to experience, he wants to know.
There are surprises here. There are rich characters living dense, real lives, dealing with modern and strange situations. While I didn’t fully connect with California, Lepucki’s first novel, this one feels much more resonant and true to me.
There is a shocking disregard for what identity means in our tech-crazed world, where you can hide behind your social media feed, where you can be some form of anonymous whenever you touch the screen. And who are you really? Are you who you are in the real world? Or are you the screen you? Are you who you used to be? Are you your parents? Some sort of amalgam?
The way Esther puts on her mother’s skin with such ease is almost scary—it is like taking over someone’s identity simply because she was tired of her own, or possibly lacked her own altogether. The way these characters struggle to come to terms with what it means to be themselves is fascinating and wrenching. They deal with a two-sided coin: the real-world identity struggle of shedding the sins of your parents, and the meta-world struggle of forming a persona through social media or creative means: This is what our society is.
Thoughtful, well-written, highly evocative of a specific place and a specific moment, this book is well worth a read if you’re looking for more depth than a quick summer read.
Get your copy of Woman No. 17 here
Find out more about Edan Lepucki
Find out more about the publisher, Hogarth/Crown (Penguin Random House)
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Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.