The Woman in the Window by Daniel Mallory, writing under the pseudonym A.J. Finn, was perhaps among the most highly anticipated books of the year. In fact, the writer signed a contract to turn it into a film before the book was even published. The novel took the bookstagrammer community by storm and, after seeing numerous aesthetically pleasing photos and riveting reviews online, I found myself under the compulsive influence of popular opinion. As it turns out, although The Woman in The Window is not a work of great literary value, it is a highly entertaining page-turner without a dull moment.
The title and the premise reminded me of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Both books are fast-paced psychological thrillers with much in common, including unreliable female protagonists and themes of loneliness, alcoholism and moral ambiguity.
The Woman in the Window is the story of Anna Fox who suffers from an extreme case of agoraphobia — fear of open spaces and crowds — which has rendered her incapable of stepping out of her house. In fact, she is afraid of even opening the windows of her costly downtown home. She is separated from her husband and daughter under mysterious circumstances and, apart from her cat and a ruggedly handsome tenant in her basement, Anna’s only face-to-face interaction is with her psychologist and her physiotherapist.
A debut novel written pseudonymously, is a highly entertaining psychological page-turner
Housebound and lonely, Anna whiles away her time by observing and photographing her neighbours and drinking copious amounts of merlot. Before she started suffering from extreme anxiety and depression, she used to work as a child psychologist and so, from a professional point of view, she knows she shouldn’t be mixing drugs with alcohol, but she does it all the same. One would assume that it is the estrangement from her husband and daughter that has driven Anna to this form of self-destruction. No longer working a proper job, she tries to keep herself busy by taking an online language course, participating in a web forum to help others suffering from agoraphobia and playing chess online. Her passion for classic black and white films and how their storylines run parallel to hers is among the best features of the book — while she spies on her neighbours, there is always some thriller film playing in the background. She is particularly partial to Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Moreover, the book itself emulates many characteristic Hitchcockian elements such as crisp dialogue, climactic plot twists, an aversion to gory details and a single setting to highlight the narrative tension.
Anna’s humdrum life is interrupted by the arrival of the Russells, a new family in the neighbourhood. One day young Ethan Russell comes bearing a present for her from his mother and with this innocuous act of neighbourly interaction her old life goes awry, as she ends up meeting Ethan’s mother and father as well. Both son and mother hint at the unreliable and potentially violent nature of Mr Russell and the turning point of the novel is when Anna observes — or believes she observes — a murder in the Russells’ house. However, when she tries to contact the police, nobody believes her because they all think her mind is addled from alcohol and drug abuse.
In the kitchen of 207 I can see the father, big and broad, backlit by a television screen. I press the camera to my eye and zoom in: the Today show. I might head down and switch on my own TV, I muse, watch alongside my neighbour. Or I might view it right here, on his set, through the lens.I decide to do that.— Excerpt from the book
The more Anna tries to unravel the murder mystery, the more she comes to doubt the truth of her reality. However, as a reader, one cannot help trusting her judgement — despite her substance addiction and spying on her neighbours, it is hard to think of her as crazy because Finn has created a highly sympathetic portrait of an otherwise successful and intelligent person losing everything to depression. The author goes to great lengths to paint a truthful picture of what it is like to be depressed, as Anna describes how she feels she’s already dead: “Dead but not gone, watching life surge forward around me, powerless to intervene.” The spying on the neighbours is a kind of coping mechanism for her to hold on to the outside world that is no longer in her reach, and deep down she realises that it is anything but healthy.
She pores over the photographs of her neighbours for months until she can no longer keep up with the world beyond her window and the feeling of being dead turns into shame, live-wiring through her body. When she isn’t spying on her neighbours, talking to agoraphobics online or talking to her husband and daughter on the phone, she thinks about how she might be responsible for everything that has gone wrong in her life and marriage: “Did I do this to us?”
Is Anna the one to blame for the estrangement in her family? Was there really a murder across the street? Or is it all in her mind, stimulated as it is from thriller films and alcohol? In her own dismal state, is she projecting her anxieties and fears on a ‘normal’ happy family? She is aware of the high levels of stimulation she experiences daily from the drinking too much and the thinking too much. Her therapy sessions, she knows, are not working: “Those unfamiliar with therapy often assume that the therapist is by default soft-spoken and solicitous; you smear yourself along his sofa like butter on toast, and you melt. It ain’t necessarily so, as the song goes.” Real mental illness, it seems, is a lot more ambiguous and abstruse.
All in all, The Woman in the Window is an impressive debut psychological thriller. The writer, much like his protagonist, is obviously a fan of classic thrillers and with this book, he brings together all the excitement of the classic mystery and the joys of a modern popcorn read.
The reviewer is an Ankara-based freelance writer
The Woman in
By A.J. Finn
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 8th, 2018