"Renaissance artists used the word 'pentimenti' – 'repentances' – to describe mistakes or alterations that were covered with new paint, only to be revealed after years or even centuries as the paint thinned with time, leaving both the original and the revision on view. Sometimes I have a sense that this house – our relationship in it, with it, with each other – is like a palimpsest or a pentimento, that however much we try to overpaint Emma Matthews, she keeps tiptoeing back: a faint image, an enigmatic smile, stealing its way into the corner of the frame."
Jane is starting over after the loss of her daughter, and needs to find a place to live on a limited budget. She is offered an opportunity to apply to live in a beautiful, modern architect designed home, with a state of the art security system, very cheaply, but there is a catch. The eccentric owner has a long list of increasingly odd and intrusive rules that tenants must follow or risk eviction. Tenants must fill out a lengthy questionnaire about their personal values, are required to keep the house scrupulously tidy and are not permitted to bring in cushions, curtains, or personal effects such as photographs paintings or decorations. As Jane begins to adapt to this minimalist lifestyle she learns that the previous tenant, Emma, died in the house under mysterious circumstances. What's more, the two women resemble one another so closely they could be mistaken for sisters and Emma, like Jane, also became involved with Edward, the owner and designer of the house. Jane's tale is inter-cut with Emma's story, and as the mystery unfolds Jane may be in danger of sharing Emma's fate.
The Girl Before has been compared by other reviewers with Gone Girl and The Girl on a Train, but I confess I haven't read either of those. However, from what I heard about them I gather they are full of shocking plot twists and suspense, so that's what I expected from this book. I was not disappointed in that regard. The Girl Before certainly is an exciting thriller that keeps you wondering what will happen next. However there was more to it that I didn't expect. I did like the book overall, but I hesitate to recommend it because it is so full of things that would be triggering to many readers (abusive relationships, rape, infant loss, eating disorders, animal cruelty and even at one point literal gaslighting), but if you can stomach all that it's a mystery with depth and beauty mixed in with the terror.
First off, I have to say that I cannot imagine myself ever agreeing to move into a place like One Folgate street, the house in the story. It is reminiscent of the obsessive organising system promoted by Marie Kondo, author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying. The house itself sounds creepy and unsafe (especially the stone staircase without railings), I probably couldn't stick to the tidiness rules, and most importantly, no matter how desperate I was for a cheap place to live, I couldn't sign a contract promising not to have any books in the house. That right there says to me "the person who drew up this contract is a psychopath! Run away!" long before getting to the parts about eating live animals (yes, really). Quite a number of points in the story had me repeating that line in my head to the main characters because it takes them an alarmingly long time to come to this realisation for themselves. But to enjoy the book I had to accept the premise, and I've never been in the traumatic situations that either of these women found themselves in before seeking to start a new life at One Folgate street so I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the decision made sense to them.