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The woman who watched too much

Poorna Swami | Updated on March 02, 2018

Window view: Anna Fox watches her neighbours, the Russells, as obsessively as she watches crime thrillers   -  martin-dm

The Woman in the Window; AJ Finn; HarperCollins; Fiction; ₹399

A satisfying plot, a fair share of eccentric characters, and a charged denouement, The Woman in the Window have them all, yet does not push the stereotype of genre fiction

In many a thriller film, both good and bad, we find one of our most beloved characters — the homebound voyeur who watches her neighbours’ every move. The Woman in the Window, AJ Finn’s debut novel, is a screen-worthy story of such a voyeur. Dr Anna Fox, a child psychiatrist, rarely leaves her Harlem townhouse. Having suffered a traumatic event, she has developed severe agoraphobia and connects with the outside world only through her window or the internet. She spends her days watching Hitchcock movies, mixing too much wine and too many prescription pills, and lending advice to fellow agoraphobes on an anonymous online platform.

When the Russells move in across from her window, they become Fox’s newest fascination. She watches this seemingly peaceful family of husband, wife, and teenage son closely, reminded of her own family before it disintegrated. But the rose-tinted family portrait of the Russells does not last long. One day, Fox hears a scream coming from their home. Upon investigating, she believes she has seen Mrs Russell being stabbed. But when the police arrive in response to Fox’s 911 call, they find no evidence of the crime. She believes they have it wrong. As her life begins to unravel and collide with the world outside her window, Fox begins to question what she saw and whether she saw it all.

The Woman in the Window; AJ Finn; HarperCollins; Fiction; ₹399

 

The Woman in the Window is made of multiple strands of intrigue, each complicating what could have been a simple whodunnit. At every turn, a new surprise changes the colour of the story and makes it harder to figure out what really happened at the crime scene. Most interesting, though, is that this isn’t a thriller of only the crime, but also of the characters around it — the truths of their stories are equally elusive. As we learn more about what Fox might have witnessed through her window, we learn more about her past. And when those skeletons tumble out of the closet, we trust her less and less as the narrator. Like Fox herself, we can’t buy into anyone’s version of the tale — we must uncover the truth about the characters in spite of them.

A story in which it is hard to pin down an arbiter of truth is the stuff of a good psychological thriller, and Finn borrows heavily from the classics. Fox obsessively watches suspense movies that almost mimic her own life — Jimmy Stewart photographing his neighbours from his window in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window seems an inspiration for Fox’s antics. Often, when she is trying to figure out what is going on around her, she makes references to famous movies and characters, as if she could map her own life in celluloid. After watching The Man Who Knew Too Much for the “umpteenth time”, she observes, “I am the woman who viewed too much”. On the one hand, this kind of self-reflexivity about genre could be considered a homage to the lineage of suspense stories. But on the other hand, the hyper-awareness appear more tacky than reverent — it contributes little to the development of the story to have a narrator so grossly knowledgeable about her own literary trope.

The Woman in the Window starts slowly, and the first hundred pages are difficult to get through. Finn spends too much time setting up Fox’s reclusive life, her anxieties, and the views from her window, so much so that one wonders when something of significance will happen. But once the crime occurs, and Fox finds herself confounded, with nobody (but us) to hear her side of the story, the book delivers on its promise of pace. Every chapter, each only a couple of pages long, continuouslypulls the plot in different directions. Soon, what began as a sluggish read becomes a page-turner as each possible answer to “what happened?” and “who did it?” quickly devolves. We are kept guessing the details of the truth until the very end.

While The Woman in the Window offers us enough diversions and revelations to keep us engaged with the mystery, it trips up on its weak writing. Although the plot is wholly satisfying, the characters more than eccentric, and the ultimate denouement charged with drama, the book fails to push the paltry stereotype of genre fiction. The language is often awkward, with sentences trying too hard to be poetic or astute. For instance, the drunk and drugged up Fox ponders her own illness:

“As Bernard Shaw said, I often quote myself; it adds spice to my conversations. As Shaw also said, alcohol is the anesthesia by which we endure the operation of life. Good old Shaw.”

Such clunky proclamations make the characters say not what they would, but what the author wants to say about them. Still, beyond the less-than original writing, Finn creates enough suspense to carry us through, make us eager to know what unimaginable thing unhinged Fox’s life.

As its numerous film references assure, The Woman in the Window, detached from the burden of unfolding in pretty sentences, will make a captivating movie of psychological disturbance and neighbourly deceit.

Poorna Swami is a writer based in Bengaluru

Published on March 02, 2018

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