Jane stumbles on the rental opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to live in a beautiful ultra-minimalist house designed by an enigmatic architect, on condition she abides by a long list of exacting rules. After moving in, she discovers that a previous tenant, Emma, met a mysterious death there – and starts to wonder if her own story will be a re-run of the girl before. As twist after twist catches the reader off guard, Emma’s past and Jane’s present become inexorably entwined in this tense, page-turning portrayal of psychological obsession. (Goodreads)
A thriller that turns the very walls of your home against you, The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney explores the dangers of a technologically modern environment and whether abiding by the rules is really the most sensible choice.
The novel alternates between the perspectives of the ‘girl before’, Emma Matthews, and the current character, Jane Cavendish. Both of their stories begin with how they come to take up residence in One Folgate Street, a one-bedroom home in London which has been designed by a famous architect. For Emma, the house represents a chance to feel safe again following the burglary of the current flat she shares with her boyfriend, Simon. When she sees the pristine sanctuary of Folgate Street she convinces Simon that this will be the right move for them, even if he is doubtful about the vast number of rules that accompany the property.
Jane shares similar doubts about those rules in the present, but she also sees the property as a fresh start following the loss of her daughter via a stillbirth. In order for them both to be approved for the house, they must complete an extensive questionnaire and meet with the mysterious architect, Edward Monkford. If they meet his approval then they are permitted to live at the property and agree to abide by its rules. For example, there are rules about what furniture is allowed and that there is to be no mess or clutter, not to mention any pets or children.
Soon after moving into the property, both Emma and Jane are contacted by Edward, who invites himself round to Folgate Street and into their beds. He has a confident expectation that they will sleep with him, and proposes an ‘unencumbered relationship’ which will end as soon as it stops being perfect. Both women consent to the no-strings-attached deal, finding themselves attracted to Edward, but there is a cloud of suspicion around his past, with his wife and son having died during the construction of Folgate Street. Then there is the problem of Emma, as Jane learns that her predecessor died under mysterious circumstances that may or may not have been murder. Could Edward have been to blame for her death and is Jane at risk of being next?
I found that I enjoyed this unique concept for a thriller, as the Folgate Street property is unique in the way it operates, using technology to anticipate the tenant’s wants and using the data to improve the home for future inhabitants. It also gave the book a sinister edge from the beginning, as it’s never quite clear where all this data is being stored or who can access it, or even how much of their lives can be seen. I thought it odd that Edward could intrude on their lives so quickly, and this was one of my few niggles with the plot. He makes his intentions clear when he invites himself over, and both women make it easy for him to dominate them, being prepared for a fling.
This was hardest to accept from Jane, who had just lost a child and yet was happy to jump straight in with Edward even after telling him about her grief. However, on the whole I found that I liked her as a character and thought she was astute in her investigation into Emma’s death. She is convinced that the death was not an accident, and needs to know that Edward wasn’t behind it if she is to continue seeing him. It is down to her that Emma’s life slowly becomes unravelled, as she seeks the help of her therapist, the police detective and even Simon, who harbours a deep-rooted hatred of Edward for taking Emma away from him.
It is as the secrets slowly come to light in the present that we see the truth unveiling in the past, with Emma’s life slowly falling down around her. She casts Simon aside in favour of Edward and we soon discover that her whole life has been built on lies. There is very little that she hasn’t lied about or contrived, with one lie covering another until it’s hard to tell if there is anything real about her. I thought this made for a good character twist, as she begins the book in a vulnerable state that makes you empathise with her, but then becomes something much more volcanic and unpredictable. It also gives several individuals a motive for wanting her out the picture, meaning Edward is not the only suspect.
I did enjoy this thriller and thought it one of the better ones I’ve read of late, with the concept of the house constantly observing you making you question modern technology and its capabilities. However, I didn’t find that the mystery of what really happened to Emma was as compelling as it could have been, as her character is almost given too many flaws, to the extent that you start thinking she deserved what she got. I think there were too many psychological dilemmas thrown into one character, and that less would have been more. Despite this, I found that Jane was completely different and remained consistent, but with a twist thrown in at the end to make you question if we really know her either. This book will make you wonder what you really know about the plot, and keep you guessing until the final chapter.
A thriller about a house that’s always watching and what that can do to your mind, this book weaves together the lives of two residents past and present into a complex mystery. As Jane starts to discover Emma’s lies, we see how the life of the girl before went into decline before she was found dead, and question what we know about both of them. The truth of whether it was suicide or murder will keep you guessing until the concluding pages, making this a thriller worth reading. I’d say this was a 3.5 star read.
J.P. DELANEY ONLINE