Written by AJ Finn — This immersive psychological thriller by newcomer AJ Finn has already been published in 36 languages and is in development for a movie treatment. It’s easy to see why. From the first pages, you’re pulled into the claustrophobic world of Anna Fox, the story’s first-person narrator. You don’t see much of New York other than her townhouse, and by the end of the book, you may feel you live there too.
It’s clear from the outset that Anna is not coping well after suffering some psychological trauma that’s caused the breakup of her marriage, and you eventually learn the particulars. Though she talks to husband Ed and daughter Olivia by phone, they have moved out, leaving her rattling around her Harlem townhouse by herself. By herself, that is, except for the handsome lodger and handyman living in the basement apartment.
Before the family break-up, Anna had been a Manhattan child psychologist, working with children damaged by abuse, neglect, psychosis, modern life. Now she’s the patient. She has developed a severe case of agoraphobia and does not – cannot – leave her house. Her psychiatrist and physical therapist come to her. Her groceries and drugs are delivered. She actually takes quite a few drugs, washing them down with an astonishing amount of red wine, delivered a case at a time, and lies about this dangerous practice to her doctor, to husband Ed, and to anyone else who asks.
To amuse herself, Anna watches old black and white movies and spies on the neighbours, using the zoom lens of her camera – much better than binoculars, she claims. As the story proceeds, her own situation takes on the elements of the classic noir films Gaslight and Rear Window. Between the drugs and the merlot, you’re meant to wonder whether Anna’s movie obsession is spilling over into her perceptions of real-life events. When new neighbours move in, her carefully constructed cocoon is about to unravel.
Although Anna is obviously both disturbed and muddled, Finn has written her with compassion and truth. Her behaviour is consistent with her character and disordered state of mind, and you believe in her actions, even the brave ones almost impossibly difficult for her.
It’s pretty clear that the story will end badly, as the new neighbours become aware of her spying and want her to stop. However, she’s befriended by their teenage son, who’s a little lonely living in a new city and has other unremarkable teenage woes like the adolescents she’d occasionally see in her clinical practice. To him, she’s a refreshingly non-judgemental conversationalist.
But when Anna sees the teenager’s mother murdered and accuses the husband of killing her – just like Rear Window, again – the family’s patience is shot, and the son is barred from interacting with her further. They say she’s delusional. Even the police, who can’t help but notice the profusion of empty wine bottles, doubt her, especially as her accusations become increasingly wild. I thought I saw where all this was headed, but Finn has several surprises in store.
Stories with unreliable narrators (see, for example, Emily Koch’s new If I Die Before I Wake) are a staple of the thriller genre. Sometimes the narrators know full well how they’re bending the truth to manipulate the people around them. However Anna is as desperate to bring reality into focus as are her neighbours and the police.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars