Reviewed by Basil Ransome Davies
This novel borrows its title from Fritz Lang’s canonical film noir (which is also a teasing, ironic comedy of the repressed returning) and Finn’s first-person narrator, Dr Anna Fox, is a woman with a camera looking out of her window into her neighbour’s. A voyeuse, in short, as if usurping the male role, not a spectacle for others. In her late thirties, separated from her husband and daughter, she has not left her Harlem brownstone for ten months, while palliating stress and fear with antipsychotic medication and plenty of wine. She is herself a psychotherapist, no longer functional but a sympathetic contributor to an online support group for fellow-agoraphobics. Her cultural life centres on home entertainment: internet chess and viewing classic back-and-white movies, mostly Hollywood, on DVD. Film noir, Hitchcock downers (Rear Window, Vertigo) and other films not radiating sweetness and light predominate. (The book’s epigraph is a suggestive quote from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.)
So touchingly familiar does this sound as a paradigm of urban leisure existence in the twenty-first century – physical comfort, the Web, videos galore, alcohol and psychotropic drugs, not to mention a memorable cat, Punch – that I almost found myself asking ‘what’s not to like?’. But of course there’s the paranoia. This is a suspense thriller and the situation is pathological heading for criminal, at the calendar pace of dated and numbered episodes over three weeks, plus a coda titled Six Weeks Later. The slow-burning plot flares up when Anna witnesses a murder in the house of her neighbours, the Russells (the wife is called Jane, another stray cinematic allusion). Or does she? Not everyone, least of all the police, inclines to take the word of a pill-popping, wine-sodden, unhinged female recluse whose lonely imagination might have been overstimulated by James Stewart staring at the abyss or Mrs Bates cackling in the cellar. Even the reader might ask, is this the diary of a lunatic, a solipsistic hell, a distant echo of Poe?
Recording what expands into a freakish nightmare of terror and suspicion, Anna finds her self-isolation deepened by hostile or unsettling relations with the Russells, her no-nonsense fitness trainer Bina, her lodger, David, a fatherly mentor and two investigating cops. Only the Russells’ teenage son, Ethan, seems willing to offer agreeable company. Anna confronts herself in an imprisoning space where every exit seems blocked and all sources of rescue withdrawn, prompting a memory of Hitchcock’s cynical but effective maxim for ‘putting the audience through it ‘ – ‘torture the heroine’.
Some online reader reviews find the pace too slow. Not me; on the contrary. The diary-like format underlines not just the pain but its persistence, step-by-step with the dragging repetition of the symptoms and the hopeless, auto-destructive behaviour pattern. Anyone who has experienced severe depression or anxiety will understand its intimate grip as a constant companion, poisoning daily life with fear and suspicion. And I’d add that monotony, or nothing happening, is often a formal gambit in the suspense aesthetic. Both Hitchcock and the great suspense writer Patricia Highsmith are virtuosos at it. They ‘get on your nerves’, ‘leave you hanging’, through inaction and withholding.
The rise (among a general upswell in crime fiction) of female-authored thrillers has given a fresh clarity and force to women’s expressive opportunities and helped reconfigure a formerly rather hairy-chested genre. For me, The Woman in the Window is persuasive in its adoption, by a male author, of a female narrative voice – not as a distanced, impartial observer but one recounting, and conditioned by, extreme psycho-emotional states, a troubled subjectivity. It’s serious, grown-up fiction by any measure. So how does it fit the generic matrix, contrived and a mare’s nest of cliché? Opportunistically and commercially, parodically, or with a sense of its vital possibilities?
My own view of genre is that it is not simply a constraint but potentially elastic and enabling. As was said of Elmore Leonard, ‘he doesn’t “transcend” the genre – he makes it seem infinite’. The American mass-marketed ‘pulp’ magazine market converted Raymond Chandler from a belle-lettrist dilettante into one of the twentieth century’s most esteemed authors. Genre writing doesn’t have to be excused. There is a quality continuum, admittedly: at one end the highly formulaic (Perry Mason, anyone?), at the other sophisticated tales recognised as ‘literature’. The Woman in the Window is at the upper end of the scale stylistically. Another test comes in the winding-up of the plot, and I did I find the dénouement disappointing, but by that time I didn’t care. The real, engaging drama for me lay in the knotting, not the unravelling, the portrait of a woman fighting both the enmity or indifference of others and her own repressions.
Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.
A.J. Finn, The Woman in the Window (HarperCollins: London, 2018). 978-0-00-823415-7, 448 pp.,hardback.
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