The Addled Narrator: A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window

After I’d completed A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window, I put the book down in my lap, leaned back, and stared somewhere into the middle distance while my mind went through the events in the novel once again, weighing and arranging them so as to form a neatly assembled puzzle. Eponymous of a 1944 film noir, Finn’s psychological thriller The Woman in the Window is a highly suspenseful story with two major plot twists that catch you unawares, incorporated into a film-like atmosphere derived from a number of noir classics. The elements that the book has in common with the 1944 noir is that the protagonist is a psychologist and the plot revolves around a murder, however, the resolution is not as neat as waking up from a nightmare. Finn relies on a quite well-tested formula designed to appeal to a wide readership, infused with a dose of originality intertwining the familiar and the unfamiliar that sucks the reader into a vortex that is Anna’s muddled mind. Dr Anna Fox, Finn’s protagonist and narrator, is neatly moulded in the thriller genre that prescribes an unreliable female narrator, who struggles with her own flaws and series of obstacles, and yet who manages to persevere and single-handedly solve the mystery. She lives in a Manhattan brownstone in relative isolation from the rest of the world due to her severe agoraphobia. Despite her seclusion, addled Anna uses her Nikon regularly to keep tabs on her neighbours, whose routines are quite predictable and rather dull, until the mysterious Russells move into the house on the other side of the park.

Some kind of severe trauma has left Anna incapable of dealing with the outside world, petrified at the prospect of ‘the vast skies, the endless horizon, the sheer exposure, the crushing pressure of the outdoors’. She feels completely powerless when on Halloween she cannot defend her house from egg-throwing vandals: ‘This is my home. That’s my window,’ she says. Her inability to act leaves her feeling utterly ashamed, causing her to fling open the door to confront the vandals, when ‘it bulges toward me, swelling, now rushing, a boulder flung from a catapult; slams me with such force, walloping my gut, that I fold. (…) The ground ripples against my body. My body ripples against the air.’ She collapses in front of her house and receives assistance from a stranger who becomes pivotal to the entire story. Anna has regular sessions with her therapists and she lives in a state of constant drowsiness from self-medicating and heavy drinking. Hence, she is considered a highly unreliable witness in the investigation of a murder that she had supposedly witnessed, and it is only in the second half of the novel that the readers get to discover what events have actually caused Anna’s retreat from the rest of the world. Confused and scared, she starts questioning herself and wondering whether she had actually witnessed the attack or if it was a product of her severely numbed mind.

For a reason that remains unexplained until around the middle of the novel, Anna’s husband Ed has taken their daughter and moved away, however, they still maintain regular contact on the phone. It is obvious that Anna misses them both deeply and she often thinks about what they would do or say in a particular situation. Her love of classics, such as Strangers on a Train and Gaslight, also serves as her link to Ed. They met at an art-house screening of The 39 Steps, whereby she introduced him to the world of film noir and by the end of the night, as she puts it, ‘his mouth was on mine. You mean your mouth was on mine, I imagine him saying.’ His replies and comments resonate clearly in her mind and have an obvious impact on her decision making.

img_0330-1The plot is gripping, characters undecipherable, the mood tense, yet the most riveting and enjoyable aspect of the novel itself is Finn’s mellifluous, flamboyant, wonderfully structured prose. Seductively vivid descriptions bring about images of warm-coloured New York autumns and bitter winters, rendered through Anna’s blurry lens: ‘A storm. The ash tree cowers, the limestone glowers, dark and damp. I remember dropping a glass onto the patio once; it burst like a bubble, merlot flaring across the ground and flooding the veins of the stonework, black and bloody, crawling toward my feet.’ Finn’s prose abounds with figurative language, with very precise, and evocative similes and metaphors that help materialise Anna’s world before the readers’ very eyes. Furthermore, the narrative mode resembles a film script, with short sentences, short chapters, single-sentence paragraphs, and present-tense narration that enhances the overall feeling of through-the-lens-mediasres and contributes to the overall feeling of suspense throughout the novel.

To summarise, The Woman in the Window is a well-told story of loneliness, loss, deception, madness, and love. The protagonist is in complete shambles, sometimes due to her own making, yet she evokes readers’ empathy and hopefulness in the end, as she is finally persuaded to ‘step into the light.’ Finn’s plot is neatly tied, echoing the formulaic sequence of the noir genre. His characters are rarely who or what they seem to be at first glance. The story ends with a surprising revelation during a stereotypical final showdown in the midst of a stormy night, after having kept the readers enthralled for 400 pages. Due to its stylistic features, this is a book that should be easily translatable into film, hence the rights had been bought even before the publication, so let’s wait and see how well this modern noir plays out on the big screens.

© 2018 Erna G.

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