There’s been a lot written about the (relatively) recent domination of the thriller genre by women, with Gillian Flynn, Tana French, Karin Slaughter, and Megan Abbott typically named as prime examples of thriller writers at the top of their game who, yes, are indeed women.
Fiona Barton burst onto the scene in 2016 with her first novel, The Widow, which received both critical and popular praise for its intricate tale of a missing child, an accused and now deceased husband, and his widow left behind to manage the fallout. With her follow-up, The Child, Barton provides readers with another intense domestic mystery that ensures her name will regularly appear next to Flynn’s, French’s, and other powerhouse authors who are writing consistently excellent thrillers that captivate readers. The fact that these authors are women shouldn’t matter, but it would be naive of me to ignore that it does. With the ‘feminization’ of any field historically leading to a decrease in prestige, pay, and male interest in the profession or skill, seeing women dominate a classically male genre to the point that men are now adopting feminine pseudonyms to increase the success of their thrillers is certainly a heartening strike against such patriarchal tendencies. Having Fiona Barton join the ranks of renowned thriller writers is yet another.
The Child begins with a question: Who is the building site baby? After the skeleton of a newborn is found on a demolition/construction site in London, journalist Kate Waters cannot let the story go and begins an investigation that leads her to a group of women seemingly unconnected: Angela, the mother of a baby taken from the maternity ward forty years ago; Emma, who suffered a series of traumas in her teen years that she believes connects her to the building site baby; and Jude, Emma’s formerly estranged mother still clinging to her past life of charismatic men and erotic desperation.
But The Child asks a question even more powerful than its tagline query: What makes someone a mother?
Through the eyes of Angela, Emma, Jude, and even Kate, readers see how a role often viewed as instinctively easy for women actually offers few simple answers. In the case of Angela, for example, readers are allowed to examine the contradictions faced by a mother who loses a child in infancy and then goes on to have other children, and how her long-standing grief is dismissed as unreasonable by others. As Jude and Emma’s story unfolds, we witness how a mother who believes she desperately loves her child also grapples with her own desires. Jude’s story in particular inverts an assumption bred within our culture: That mothers inherently discard their own needs for those of their children. The Child doesn’t try to answer this question, but rather seems to want to provoke readers to reexamine their own stances. The fact that a popular thriller would place at its heart such a relevant, but traditionally feminine, issue is telling, and I hope to see even more stories on bestseller lists that make women’s stories what they truly are: human stories.
In reading Barton’s writing, it’s difficult to ignore her lauded career as a journalist. Her writing embodies concision in the best way–although each chapter of The Child is short and Barton often alternates character perspectives from chapter to chapter, the reader remains transported by both the story and the feel of each character. I feel it’s a testament to Barton’s craft, honed over years of reporting at the Daily Mail and The Mail, that she is able to present fully-realized characters with unique voices in such short bursts of prose. In listening to interviews of Barton, she’s noted how she writes quickly, a style she attributes to her journalistic experience of being on-deadline. I’d also add that the clean lines of her writing also speak directly to her skills as a reporter: The Child reads without a word wasted, a gesture unnoticed, or a piece of dialogue that isn’t revelatory, to the plot or to who the person speaking truly is. Barton’s writing forces us as readers to pay attention, and likewise propels us to keep turning the pages to see where the story might lead. In this way the curiosity and tenacity of Kate Waters is infectious. Readers take on the same task as Kate does in The Child: to read people and situations in order to uncover the truth. Perhaps Barton, who travels the world to train journalists, cannot help but train her readers as well.