Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Wednesday, November 2, 2016: Maximum Shelf: The Girl Before

Ballantine Books: The Girl Before by JP Delaney

Ballantine Books: The Girl Before by JP Delaney

Ballantine Books: The Girl Before by JP Delaney

Ballantine Books: The Girl Before by JP Delaney

The Girl Before

by JP Delaney

Emma insists to her boyfriend, Simon, they can no longer stay in their apartment after her traumatic assault during a break-in. Their lease is almost up and they've not found a suitable alternative--Emma identifies security risks with everything in their price range, until the realtor mentions a special house: One Folgate Street. It's a fantastic property, but the owner is not your typical landlord.

Jane loses her job. She can no longer afford her current flat and has to find something new. So when her realtor mentions another possibility--an amazing place, really--Jane asks, " 'An amazing property on my budget? We're not talking about a houseboat, are we?'

'God no. Almost the opposite. A modern building in Hendon. A whole house--only one bedroom, but loads of space. The owner is the architect.' "

A great house for little money? Surely there must be a catch. And indeed there is. It's not a typical lease agreement, which is especially fitting since One Folgate Street is not a typical rental.

Writing under a pseudonym, JP Delaney has crafted a psychological thriller around a distinctive building that enchants both Emma and Jane because of its minimalist design. Jane describes her first viewing: "[B]are walls, made of some expensive cream-colored stone, that soar into the void of the roof. The upper floor is reached by the most crazily minimalist staircase I've ever seen. It's like something hewn into a cliff face: floating steps of open, unpolished stone, with no handrail or visible means of support.... I look across at the next room, if room is the right word for a free-flowing space that doesn't actually have a doorway, let alone a door."

Each woman is so taken with the rental she is willing to accept the roughly 200 stipulations of the restrictive covenant--no pictures, no potted plants, no books, no ornaments--and complete a long application packet, submit three photos of herself and meet for a face-to-face interview with the owner, Edward Monkford.

The Girl Before is told in alternating points of view, with the chapters rotating between the voices of Emma and Jane, each residing at One Folgate Street, several years apart. The two women are dramatically different personalities, but their experiences in the home--including an affair with Monkford that works to weave a darkly erotic element into their stories--begin to mirror each other's. And the longer they are at One Folgate Street, the more normal the minimalist existence becomes--"So many things about this way of life that once seemed onerous are now habitual." Each time Delaney reveals one answer, there's a new twist to the storyline and more questions result. The short chapters and constant uncertainties keep the pace of the novel swift and engaging.

Delaney's use of One Folgate Street as a setting that functions very nearly as a character itself adds additional intrigue. The integration of high-end technologies contribute to the eerie atmosphere as the house constantly watches and monitors its inhabitants, knowing when they want to enter, cook, shower or change the lighting. While this surveillance is touted as eco-friendly and beneficial to the resident, it also exudes an ominous Big Brother quality.

Interspersed throughout the novel are some of the questions Emma and Jane answer on their rental applications. The queries are obviously psychological in nature--"You have a choice between saving Michelangelo's statue of David or a starving street child. Which do you choose?"-- adding to the suspense and forming a framework for the book, much like the structure of a house. Readers aren't privy to how Emma and Jane answer all the questions, but they will likely find themselves pondering their own responses, as well as their own possessions, as they engage with a story full of detail and substance about a house devoid of both.

One Folgate Street may be sparse but The Girl Before is not. Intense and entertaining, it's a satisfying read for fans of domestic thrillers, and minimalists may find some new ideas. Either way, shuck off the unnecessary commitments and settle in for a wild stay in an innovative house packed with mystery. --Jen Forbus

Ballantine Books, $27, hardcover, 352p., 9780425285046, January 24, 2017

Ballantine Books: The Girl Before by JP Delaney

JP Delaney: The Perfect Obsession

JP Delaney is an acclaimed author who has written under other names; he is also a creative director for the largest advertising agency in the U.K. The Girl Before is his first novel under this pseudonym.

What sparked your interest in minimalism?

I originally chose a minimalist house as my setting just because minimalism is such a psychological architectural style--a manifestation of something pretty obsessive going on in an architect's head. But as I explored the topic, I became more interested in the architect's clients--the people who actually choose to live in such an extreme way. What would draw someone to that kind of beautiful, highly disciplined but also austere lifestyle, without clutter or superfluous possessions of any kind? The answer, it seemed to me, was someone who has suffered a traumatic, life-changing event, and who thinks that a clutter-free life will somehow help to fill a hole in their own heart.

Emma and Jane are asked to "Please make a list of every possession you consider essential to your life." How would you respond to that request?

Well, the question is a loaded one, as my characters come to realize: it subtly suggests that all possessions are a distraction from what's really important. So hopefully, you start to wonder what sort of person is asking the question.

Personally, I live surrounded by clutter--the room in which I'm writing this is a jumble of books, guitars, family mementoes, the sloughed-off skin of a three-foot grass snake I found in the garden one morning.... Is any of it essential? Of course not. But would I actually be a better person if it was all suddenly magicked away? No again. But I can see why some people might yearn for a clean slate like that.

Do you think this story could only work with women, or would two men have been plausible as well?

The book could probably have worked with men as the tenants--but that would have meant making the architect a woman. And I think there's a tunnel-vision, uncompromising aspect to some men's brains which sits better with the details of my story. In a way, that's what the book is really about: despite having two women as the protagonists, its subject is male obsession.

Was there an actual house that inspired this one? The advanced technology?

One Folgate Street is based on houses by several minimalist architects. For example, a Swiss chalet house designed by Davide Macullo; the flat John Pawson designed for the writer Bruce Chatwin in London; and a staircase by Katsufumi Kubota. But the technology in it is drawn from specialist books like The Smart House by James Grayson Trulove.

How did you approach the research to make all these special pieces fit and be plausible?

Because the house is described in the book as being built seven years ago, I was careful to make its technology very slightly out of date. For example, wearing a digital bangle so that a smart shower can recognize you and set the water to the exact temperature you like--today, that could be done much more easily by face recognition technology. Or the way there's no letter box, because technologists back then failed to forecast the boom in delivery services like Amazon Prime. The effect I wanted was a bit like one of those old movies in which they tried to predict the future and got it very slightly wrong. It's a small thing, but hopefully it all adds to the feeling of authenticity and creepiness.  

The house itself almost takes on a character role. Did you start with that intention?

Well, in some ways it's down to very simple things, like always calling the house by name--"One Folgate Street"--rather than "the house." In that way, I give it its proper due as a character.

I'm a big fan of classic gothic "house" stories--books like Rebecca or Wuthering Heights. I wanted The Girl Before to be a kind of modern take on that tradition, where the spookiness comes from the sheer absence of anything, rather than the usual gothic trappings of cobwebs and shadows.

The computer application that runs the house's systems, called "Housekeeper," is my very small nod to the influence of Rebecca.

This is JP Delaney's first novel, but it's not your first novel. Was there anything different about the way you approached writing?

The Girl Before had a very slow gestation. I actually started it 15 years ago, but for some reason, I just couldn't make it work. I wrote several other books instead--but each time I finished one of those projects, I'd come back to this story again and have another go. Over the years I tried it as a screenplay, as a TV drama, then as a novel again.

One reason it took so long was that I'd become intrigued by the well-known idea that killers have a "pattern"--they get psychological satisfaction from repeating the details of their previous killing. I decided to reflect that in the book by having two timelines that slot together to make one continuous story, each scene triggering the events of the next, even though three years separate them. The effect I wanted was for the reader to be aware that the characters are inside a story that's been told before--so the big narrative question becomes whether the second woman can escape the ending that was written for the first. But it made the plotting very complex.

Another reason it took so long--and the reason I think I persevered through so many drafts--was that I have a personal connection to the material. Like one of my protagonists, my partner and I lost a baby, in our case to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Our next child, Ollie, was born with Joubert's Syndrome, a rare genetic condition that resembles a mixture of autism and cerebral palsy. He's non-verbal and suffers from a variety of mental and physical disabilities. As anyone who has a disabled child knows, it forces you to reassess the life you thought you were going to have. In particular, you develop a very different attitude to notions like "beauty" and "perfection." The old me would have been drawn to perfectly designed, art-directed spaces like One Folgate Street. Now, it's messy, chaotic houses, where the walls are scarred by bicycle handlebars and defaced with scribbles and children's paintings, that draw my envy. I didn't even realize it until I finally came to finish The Girl Before, but that theme--of being both attracted to, and repelled by, perfection--lies at the very heart of the novel.

The Girl Before was optioned for film; are you going to be involved in the adaptation?

No, I won't be involved. They have a very good team on board and, although I have written screenplays and want to do more, it's best for this book to be adapted by someone who isn't so close to it.

Is JP Delaney working on something new now?

I'm not completely sure what I'll do next! I'd like to write another novel of psychological suspense, not least because I think it's a genre where you're allowed, even expected, to create richly complex characters who are neither all good nor all bad. But it's also a genre that demands the writer come to it with fresh, bold ideas. Watch this space! --Jen Forbus

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