On a quiet wintery afternoon, I received a warm gift from a Secret Santa – a psychological thriller by A.J. Finn. The writer and the book both were new to me.
A thriller is a genre which isn’t much traversed by me. A quick look at the foreword and back cover got me interested. This is a supposedly new york times bestseller and chronicles the day to day activities of a PTSD patient. This got me all the more interested.
So, on the pleasantly warm wintery evening, I started reading a thriller! A rather gripping and television series like novel if I may say so. This could easily become a hit television series like “The Desperate Housewives”
Author A. J. Finn
Before I begin reviewing the book, here’s a short introduction to the writer, A. J. Finn
This is the pseudonym or pen name of Daniel Mallory, a former book critic, and an Oxford graduate. This 1988 born novelist is 39 years old and resides in New York. Hence, his novel is based in New York City. A journalist with an excellent work profile, Finn has worked for the Washington Post, LA Times among many others. He is critically acclaimed as the thriller novelist which shows in various award nominations. He had spent considerable years in England as seen in his Oxford degree and his repertoire for the language. Hence, you will find the novel well written with references to French and British English phrases and ways of life. Much of the setting of the novel and its preferences are recognizable if you take a look at Finn’s life and living.
About the Book
The novel is set in a normal New York City neighborhood in late October and chronicles the life of lonely child psychiatrist Anna Fox. It’s spanned out for 3 weeks but each day is filled with intrinsic turn of events and mild psychological overdoses.
Anna suffers from Agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) and spends most of her time inside a 4-storeyed house watching her neighbors and helping other people over the social media platform “Agora”
Anna’s life changes when a kid visits her with a present.
Valuable Insights on PTSD and Agoraphobia
The novel goes on to describe the day to day hardship and troubles of PTSD and agoraphobic person. Anna oscillates between her loneliness, depression and feel good feelings. Her only window to the world is the internet and the neighbors she watches across the streets.
The novel written entirely in first person opens with Anna snooping on the illicit affair of her neighbor Sue Miller. She doesn’t know her original name and gives her the name Rita as she proceeds to inspect Sue’s personal life with her Nikon camera.
She’s lovely, a genuine redhead, with grass-green eyes and an archipelago of tiny moles trailing across her back.
That’s how Anna describes Sue Miller. She goes on to introduce and snoop on each of her neighbor across the street. You get a good intro to the characters and get to know their eccentricities. The Grays, the Millers, the Russells – everyone intrigues her, especially the Russells.
About the Protagonist
Here as Anna goes onto live each day of her life as it comes, you gradually get to know the protagonist and identify her as the writer. Anna is similar to Finn in 2 aspects – she is also 39 years old as the writer and she also lives in New York.
You see Anna in the story but you don’t see her at all. You will know her but in bits and pieces and never fully. She is fond of black and white Hollywood classics and merlot. She survives on this two. Hitchcock’s thrillers and Ingrid Bergman’s voices are her only solaces. Along with this, she reads books and helps people suffering from Agoraphobia.
You can’t picture her properly from the writing, as the writer dwells more on what she does and why she does along with her perspective of the world. You get a closer look at the disease, on the syndrome, on the person. You will get into Anna’s head as you go on reading and think as she is thinking.
The Connection and The Conflicts
Anna misses her family dearly reflects that as she witnesses the happy family of the Russells moving in across the street. She is Agoraphobic still she connects with people – Granny Lizzie on the Agora Platform and Ethan, the Russell’s 16-year-old son in real life.
She compares her daughter Olivia to Ethan and becomes quite fond of him. Such is her fondness with the family that she ventures out to protect Ethan’s mother when she sees her in trouble and that’s when the tragedy strikes. Anna’s life is turned upside down by this event. She takes a lonely stride in solving the mystery when nobody believes here, unaware that her own life might be in jeopardy.
Utilizes the Hazards of Technology
The novel charters almost every aspect of our modern life. The hazard of knowing and revealing to an unknown stranger on a digital platform. The convenience of connecting and helping people and across the world. The reliability of online services for our daily activities. The prospect of finding and knowing all about a person online. The breach of personal privacy in the age of the internet.
Anna benefits from all of these but they soon become her cause of tension. Her agoraphobia prevents her from getting out of the house so she takes the help of the online services and does all the household chores including food delivery with it.
She utilizes her time and learns French online, counsels people online etc. However, tragedy soon strikes as these technologies soon reveal its dark side. The things that seem reliable to her isn’t. Her own house isn’t safe anymore. Her computer pass code s changed and she doesn’t seem to remember if she has done it.
She gathers information about others online and snoops on them and find out by technological means. The same thing boomerangs when she is outsmarted by an unscrupulous person who lies nearby.
She witnesses a murder and reports it to police who don’t believe her. Everyone thinks she’s making up things. Her own psychiatrist thinks it might be due to the side effects of the drugs
Highlights the effects of self-treatment and drug overdose
Throughout the novel, we see tremendous ill-effects of self-diagnosis and self-treatment.
Anna, a trained and performing psychiatrist knows well the effects of self-treatment and the problem of overdosing. Yet she mixes and matches her medicines. Heavily drinks and then uses psychotic drugs which further escalates her problem. The writer chronicles each and every aspect of this as the novel paces.
Plenty of well-placed twists and turns
Lastly, the merit of this novel lies in its well-placed twists and turns – which ties it in a tight knot. It’s not your characteristic who-done-it novel where an agoraphobic person solves the case. The fast half might seem little uneventful and slow in pace but it builds up the tension and goes well in understanding the psyche of the characters.
The novel is based on a single incident and a happens in a very short span of time. Hence, there’s not very much scope to be descriptive about nature and the entire.
It’s a constrained space view where you see the world at large from a small timid claustrophobic space.
Hence, the inner settings and alignments are greatly enhanced.
The characters are largely narrow and one-dimensional and remain in the space of crime which helps in creating the story. This makes it important to highlight the time and activity of each and every person. It’s greatly time and place dependent much like any thriller.
The writer has well articulated the mood and the perspective of the character by the use of iconic Hollywood thriller movies as props. This makes it easier for the reader to stay with the flow of the story even when the pace is slow. And especially helps in articulating the intangible ways of thinking of the protagonist.
Overall, the plot and the characters suit a thriller of this kind