The first line of The Girl Before, a psychological thriller by JP Delaney is thought-provoking;
1. Please make a list of every possession you consider essential to your life.*
This question is asked of prospective tenants of One Folgate Street, an award-winning minimalist apartment. Edward Monkford, the enigmatic architect who designed the apartment, intended the space to transform the people who live there into the best version of themselves. Approved tenants sign a contract forbidding them from cluttering up the apartment, they are not allowed to have books, cushions, photos, or personal effects on display, and pets and children are also forbidden. Tenants are also obliged to regularly answer questionnaires to monitor any psychological changes they experience while living in the apartment.
The story is told in turn by two separate tenants, Emma, who lived in the apartment in the past, and Jane, who lives there now. The architect who designed One Folgate Street, the enigmatic and attractive Edward Monkford, has affairs with both women while they are the current tenant. Jane realises that Emma died in mysterious circumstances in the apartment about three years ago and is horrified to realise she and Emma are physically very alike. She queries Edward about the past but when he brushes her off, decides to investigate Emma’s death herself.
It was difficult to know who to believe when Emma and Jane were telling their stories and I was kept guessing almost until the end of the story. Neither of the tenants were particularly likeable and I struggled to see why anybody would find Edward, who was an obsessive perfectionist, attractive. (Clearly, I’m much more attracted to bearded, messy hoarders whose sheds are full of old junk).
The psychological questions continued throughout the story and I found them to be frighteningly thought-provoking and much more enjoyable than the actual story. For example:
5a) You have a choice between saving Michelangelo’s statue of David or a starving street child. Which do you choose?
The child. **
The questions get even worse. How about this one?
16. A railway signalman is responsible for changing the points at a remote junction. Against regulations he takes his son to work, but gives him strict instructions not to go near the line. Later he sees a train approaching, but before he can change the points he spots the boy playing on the track, too far away to hear him. Unless the points are changed the train will almost certainly crash, causing multiple fatalities, but if he does change them the train will almost certainly kill his son. If you were him, what would you do?
Change the points?
Don’t change the points?***
I enjoyed the first section of the story but felt as if it fell down in the last few chapters. The loose ends came together, but with more of a fizzle than the bang the story had been leading up to. I have to admit though, I’m tired of unreliable narrators and thrillers with ‘Girl’ in the title.
Still, I will almost certainly go and see The Girl Before at the movies when it comes out. Ron Howard is to direct and I usually enjoy his work, but I am most looking forward to seeing how this life-changing apartment is physically portrayed, particularly the kitchen.
*At first I thought of lots of possessions which I considered essential to my life. These included a vegetable peeler, recipe books, the eyebrow tweezers I’ve been using since I was a teenager, a dictionary, my house keys and so on, then I thought about it some more and stripped my list down to two things. My library card and my much-loved Humphrey B Bear, who is in much worse shape than the Humphrey in the photo below. Mine has been through the washing machine many times, has only one arm and wears a very old ’21 today’ badge pinned to his chest. He’s a funny old fellow, is Humphrey. And no, he doesn’t wear pants. He is a bear and bears don’t need pants.
**First thought; I would save the child. Then I started to think like a psychopath, which is how this story wants you to think. There is only one statue of David and millions of starving street children… Then I went back to plan A and decided that if this actually happened, I would act without thinking to save the child. I think…
***I would save my child…
I would love to know anyone else’s answers to these questions. No judgement here…