The Girl Before

Written by JP Delaney — The classic novel 1984 was published 68 years ago and I wonder what George Orwell would make of today’s society, with CCTV, GPS and even cookies tracking our every move? Big Brother really IS watching us.

JP Delaney takes things a step further in an intriguing novel, which is a big release for Quercus on 26 January. Film rights have already been sold. It’s a book that owes more to Grand Designs than Downton Abbey, melding the modern-day problems of finding somewhere decent to live on a limited budget (and in London, no less) with the issues created by an ever-growing tide of surveillance technology. Last year, we reviewed The Steel Kiss by Jeffery Deaver, where remotely controlled high tech devices were used to devastating effect. It’s all taken a startling step further here with a house keeping an eye on its inhabitants.

Just how far would you compromise to get the house of your dreams? Jane is single and has just suffered the stillbirth of a beautiful daughter. She’s fragile and she wants change, starting with her address because she can’t cope any longer with seeing the pretty, lemon-painted room set aside for the new arrival. But money is tight and choices are few, which is why she jumps at the chance of living in a one-off, minimalist house designed and built by uncompromising starchitect Edward Monkford.

When she applies to become the tenant of One Folgate Street, there are pages and pages of questions to answer, some highly personal, others a little strange. Jane is warned that she is unlikely to get any further in the process until a one-line email summons her to the Monkford Partnership. That’s when she comes face to face with Edward Monkford, the man who created the home she now longs to live in.

This is prime psychological thriller territory, and as all seasoned genre fans know you should be careful what you wish for. One Folgate Street is a property like no other, using the latest in technology to track Jane’s every mood and move. The house actually withdraws essentials like hot water and the means to cook until she successfully completes probing questionnaires that arrive almost daily, via email. There’s isn’t even a front door key. A Fitbit-style bracelet knows who you are and lets you in.

The place comes with a veritable compendium of rules that any occupant must follow – no clutter, no children, no pets are a few of the more normal-sounding ones. The house even has its own internet browser – no Google here – so Jane learns to be circumspect about the things she searches for. And top of her searching is the name of Emma Matthews, a previous tenant who died in mysterious circumstances, at the bottom of the floating staircase which Jane now uses. Opinion is divided about whether Emma – the girl before of the title – committed suicide or was pushed and Jane is determined to discover the truth.

As the narrative is batted between Emma and Jane, we discover that the posh address isn’t the only thing they share. Both are attracted to Edward Monkton and, split across those two storylines, both are soon deep in a relationship with him. But who can we trust in this most precise of romantic triangles? Delaney displays the full gamut of writerly skills to drag any unwitting reader into the malestrom of emotions that dwell within this book’s pages.

The author is a shadowy figure. JP Delaney is a pseudonym for ‘a writer who has previously written best selling fiction under other names’. I’m not even sure if JP is male or female, but what I do know is that they have a high-definition view of the world that translates well into print. The house itself is the star of this show and plays a huge part in how things pan out. My one quibble about the book is that both women seem a little too eager to bend to Edward’s demanding ways. That said, this is an entertaining, imaginative and original read.

Quercus
Print/Kindle/iBook
£6.49

CLF Rating: 4 Stars

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