- Publish Date
- Friday, 19 January 2018, 12:06PM
- By Stephanie Jones
Dr Anna Fox, the titular figure in A J Finn’s peripatetic thriller The Woman in the Window, lives alone in New York City. She speaks frequently to her husband and daughter, who ceased to live with her after an unspecified event, and constantly observes and photographs the people who share her upper-middle-class neighbourhood.
To ascribe to the story an adjective that suggests wandering or roaming is a little ironic, for the novel elapses almost entirely in two limited spaces: the Harlem townhouse that was once Anna’s family home, and Anna’s tormented mind. But it’s apt, for what the story lacks in geographical spread it compensates for with a woman who acts erratically out of paranoia, grief and nearly pathological loneliness.
An agoraphobe and a pill-popping alcoholic, Anna is a classic unreliable narrator. The set-up is clearly signposted; something violent and possibly criminal will happen, Anna will witness it and raise an alarm, and her account will not be trusted. The reader will like Anna for her ready acknowledgement of her own failings, for her indignant rejection of fools, and for her humanity in extremis.
Anna is a child psychologist by training and former practice, and she channels her expertise and intelligence into free online counselling to other afflicted souls around the world. She long ago crossed the ethical border into another world, where she tracks the progress of her former patients and scours the internet to find out everything about her neighbours: their names and occupations, what they paid for their homes, what they’re reading in their book clubs.
The fun of this novel is the Agatha Christieness of it all. There is the violence witnessed by Anna in the home of her neighbours the Russells (a couple and their teenage son), a short cast of characters (who may be suspects, witnesses, skeptics or red herrings), and the winding road to the inevitable revelation of whodunit, and in this case, what was done.
More fun is in outwitting the author by anticipating the twists, and while one in particular will be semaphored to any reader with a passing acquaintance with mystery thriller tropes, Finn makes a good fist of the resolution – and in any case, Anna is so appealingly self-aware (one early passage has her analysing herself as if a modern-day Bertha Rochester) that her endpoint might be the thread many readers grasp most firmly.
If Finn intended any grand feminist message it doesn’t land, and there is no attempt to build a larger sociopolitical construct around Anna’s life, but the portrait of a damaged woman who is gaslighted, doubted and outright disbelieved is just right for these times.
The Woman in the Window is a tale screaming for the cinema, where it’s already appeared before, as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 James Stewart-Grace Kelly showcase Rear Window. Finn’s version is plenty meta – Anna is a classic film fan with a special yen for the old master – and an unabashed reinterpretation that won’t fetch a G rating but promises to satisfy audiences in more than one medium.
Every week Stephanie reviews the Book of the Week.
As the Coast book reviewer, Stephanie Jones shares her thoughts each week on the latest releases.
Stephanie has a BA (Hons) in history and English literature, and a background in journalism, magazine publishing, public relations and corporate and consumer communications.
Stephanie is a contributor to the New Zealand Book Council’s ‘Talking Books’ podcast series (listen here), and a member of the 2016 Ngaio Marsh Award judging panel. She can be found on Twitter @ParsingThePage.
Take your Radio, Podcasts and Music with you