Reviewed by Harriet
Who is JP Delaney? All that is known at the time of writing this review is that the pseudonym conceals the identity of ‘a writer who has previously written bestselling fiction under other names’. Perhaps all will soon be revealed, but whoever s/he is, this is certainly a cracker of a book.
One house, two girls. The house is the remarkable One Folgate Street, a house like no other. From the outside it looks like a boring concrete box, inside it is a thing of immense, though immensely minimalistic, beauty. Designed by the British ‘techno architect’ Edward Monkford, it acts as a demonstration of his philosophy of ‘domotics’, the belief in ‘intelligent domestic environments in which the house or building becomes an integrated organism with no extraneous or unnecessary elements’. Any tenant who wants to live in One Folgate Street must fill in a lengthy questionnaire, submit to an interview, and, if accepted, must live according to the stringent rules of the house – no mess, no extraneous decoration (cushions, throws, pictures, books), everything hidden away in concealed cupboards. What’s more, the house is controlled by its own electronic system, which records the activities that go on inside. And finally, the architect himself has power of veto – he must approve the incoming tenants himself.
The two girls are Emma, who lived there a couple of years earlier, and Jane, who moves in as the novel begins. Emma was recovering from a traumatic break-in at the flat she shares with boyfriend Simon, Jane getting over the death of a baby she was planning to rear as a single mother. Both, then, are vulnerable. In alternate chapters, we see how the lives of the two girls run in parallel, from their first, amazed, viewing of the house through their application forms and their important interview with the architect himself. Both are instantly attracted to the handsome, charismatic, intense Edward Monkford and both (Emma having ditched Simon) are soon involved in a powerful, sometimes brutal, sexual relationship with him.
So far, so parallel. But the longer Jane stays in the house, the more curious she becomes about her predecessor. When she discovers that Emma actually died in the house, a mysterious and unexplained fall downstairs which may or may not have been more than an accident, she gets increasingly anxious and afraid. She feels sure someone is watching her and her relationship with Edward, though irresistibly addictive, seems more and more threatening.
There’s so much to praise about this novel. It’s a supreme psychological thriller, written with great skill and style. I was most impressed with the way, at first, there are so many parallels between Jane and Emma that it seems only the circumstances of their lives really differentiates them. But as time goes on, and we get to know them better, the differences in their characters and their reactions become increasingly apparent. This is particularly evident in the way each girl responds to Edward’s controlling behaviour – Emma is, at first at least, more rebellious and feisty, Jane more nervous and anxious to play the game his way. As for Edward, in the hands of a less skillful novelist he might seem like a caricature, but here he is unfortunately only too believable.
I can’t tell you any more without giving too much away. Suffice it to say that the tension mounts almost unbearably towards the end, as twist piles onto twist and which culminates in a final chapter that shows… Well, you’ll have to read it for yourself.
Although not officially published till late January 2017, the novel has already been signed up for a film, and no doubt it will be a great success. Excellent stuff, a page-turning must read.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and would not survive for a minute in a minimalist house.
JP Delaney, The Girl Before (Quercus, 2017). 978-1786480293, 408pp., hardback.
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