Today I’m sharing my thoughts on Birthday Girl, the debut thriller from Niko Wolf. I received this book as a spot of surprise book post from Hodder & Stoughton and was intrigued by the premise so decided to tuck in. Here’s what it’s about:
About the Book
Jonathan’s wife disappeared more than twenty years ago. Now he’s seeing her everywhere . . .
New York in the 1990s – impoverished writer Jonathan Dainty takes his wife Maddie out to the beach for her birthday. Hours later he finds himself at the local police precinct trying to explain how on earth he let his wife get into a stranger’s car, and allowed it to drive her away.
More than twenty years later, Maddie is presumed dead and Jonathan has channelled his grief into a best-selling series of crime novels. As far as he can, he is living the perfect life.
Then one day he catches a glimpse of his dead wife, moving through a throng of people. Is Maddie alive? Has she come back? And why does no one believe him? As Jonathan attempts to uncover the truth, it soon becomes clear that the people closest to him are hiding something, something that could change everything . . .
The propulsive thriller from debut talent Niko Wolf, perfect for fans of Gone Girl and Blood Orange
Birthday Girl is a slow burning thriller, one in which nothing is quite as it seems and that is laced with mystery and atmosphere from the very start. Jonathan and Maddie are on vacation, a chance to celebrate Maddie’s birthday and also a day on which Jonathan intends to make a very grand gesture. But on the very same day Maddie disappears, and Jonathan’s life will never be the same again. Witness or suspect? Different theories are cast by different people, but over the course of the novel we slowly uncover the truth, and it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
There is a real literary tone to this novel. It’s not a fast paced read, more contemplative and full of suspense. From the beginning, when Jonathan spots someone who looks just like his missing wife, we are fed snippets of the complicated and twisted past of the central characters, Jonathan and Maddie, and the events that led to the fateful night. Intertwined with the present day, these scenes serve to further develop and establish Jonathan’s character and the reason for his obsession over his wife. Even though he is on the cusp of a new future, a new type of happiness, he is a haunted soul and the way in which the author portrays his distraction and his growing obsession feel authentic and at times quite intense.
The narrative flows beautifully and despite a lack of action at times, I still found myself completely absorbed by the book and compelled to read onward. This story is led by character rather than action, but behaviour and personality more than tension, so whilst it leans towards a psychological thriller, it felt like more of a mystery to me. Those lingering questions of what happened to Maddie and, if she is still alive, why she had chosen now to return.
Jonathan’s life is full of complicated relationships, from his new fiance to his sister and his son. Nothing is quite straightforward and as likeable and sympathetic as Jonathan could be at times, there was always something that prevented me from completely settling in his company. An edge to his personality that was kept mostly hidden but which became clear in certain circumstances. You can understand him struggling as a single father, not knowing quite what to tell his son about his mother’s disappearance, and Niko Wolf has captured this beautifully in the story.
This is a story of duplicity, of a truth hiding in plain sight and where nothing is quite as it appears to be. Can anyone be trusted? Well, you should read the book and judge for yourself. I loved that this mystery did not necessarily conform to type, that despite not being bogged down with twists the ending still came as a surprise. Those closing moments … so beautifully executed they left me with a big smile on my face. A great debut thriller and definitely recommended.
About the Author
Niko Wolf was born in London and her first novel, The Favourite, was published in the UK in 2017 under SV Berlin. Long listed for The Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award 2018, it was also chosen as an ELLE Book of the month.
Most recently, she was a Screenwriter and Story Editor for independent movie A Son of Man, selected as an official entry in the foreign-language category for the 2019 Oscars. Wolf works in artificial intelligence, and lives in Manhattan.
Birthday Girl is her first thriller.