WHAT CAME BEFORE by Anna George

What CameBeforeThe opening sentence to What Came Before was so compelling and powerful
that I started reading and couldn’t stop.

‘My name is David James Forrester. I’m a solicitor. Tonight, at 6.10, I killed my wife. This is my statement.’

Well, no need to worry about spoiler alerts there. The damage has been done. But why? What happened?

David sits in his car talking into his Dictaphone trying to record his version of events. He’s desperate to get the details right and feels certain that he will succeed, that he’ll do this better than all those people he’s represented and all the confessions that he’s listened to. Meanwhile, Elle, his wife lingers in the laundry, hovering above her lifeless body, wondering how things reached this point.

Both David and Elle retrace and reflect on their relationship, on their actions over the past 22 months that lead to the point of David strangling his wife. Elle is a film maker who turned her back on a law career in favour of creative pursuits. She is passionate and won’t settle for mediocrity or misery. David is a lawyer who hates his job but staunchly carries on, denying his desires for creative expression. He is powerful but dark, his anger lurks hidden beneath his charm, and control is what he craves.

This book is a gripping thriller that delves into the dark and sinister topic of domestic abuse, and the devastating effect that this kind of violence has on women, and their family and friends. It is lightened by Elle’s creative pursuits – she loves romantic comedies and her screen idols are Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey. But the dark side of Elle and David’s relationship soon leeches into her creative pursuits with devastating effects.

There is a lot of societal judgement toward women who stay in an abusive relationship, but often it is not as simple as just walking away. Women don’t fall in love with men who are violent up-front, from the first date. They fall in love with men who are charming, charismatic, caring and tender who over time display tendencies such as derogative comments, isolating women by shutting out friends and family insisting on wanting to spend time alone together, the slow whittling away of self confidence, then the acceleration to violence – heated arguments that escalate to shouting, a push or shove, the firm grip on an arm that leaves bruises, and then slapping, hitting or punching. Afterwards, in the early stages there is intense remorse and guilt followed by good behaviour on the abuser’s behalf. The ‘bad’ man disappears and the ‘good’ man reappears once more, with vigour. This sliding between good and bad can go on for months or years, and this can then escalate from profuse apologies to blame: ‘You made me do it’ or ‘If only you didn’t make me so angry’. By the time the relationship has reached this point, the woman involved has quite often lost her sense of self, her friends have withdrawn because they are frustrated that she can’t see what they can ‘He’s a dick/asshole/loser’, and all she really craves is to be loved, for the ‘good’ man who first swept her off her feet to come back. It’s complex, the threads of abuse run deep and severing those intense emotions and staying strong takes immense courage and willpower.

I loved this book and think that Anna George has done a remarkable job of portraying the weaving, creeping, suffocating impact of being in an abusive relationship and how the impact flows outward in ever-growing concentric circles. The story is told from both Elle and David’s perspectives, and the pace is a clever blend of excruciating tension and  easing off to reflect on happier times, moments of joy,  followed by that slow escalation back to tension. The characters are real, credible. Watching Elle’s slow disintegration of self is frustrating, infuriating and heartbreaking. Her desire for love, her belief in love is so intense that you can understand her desire to try one more time, just one more time. The writing is tight, the imagery strong. There are no wasted words or over-explaining to be found. Anna George’s characters are full, well developed, and they will prompt a response in readers.

This book is so much more than just a murder-thriller. The complex topic will touch a nerve and readers will want to talk about it. Some may struggle with Elle’s behaviour and want to put the book down, or throw it across the room. Me, I felt such deep empathy for her, for her romantic-at-heart notions that I wanted to embrace her and give her the love she so deeply craved and deserved.

Overall, a brilliant book that I highly recommend you read, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. What Came Before was shortlisted for the 2015 Ned Kelly Awards and recently made the shortlist for the Sister’s in Crime 15th Davitt Awards.

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What Came Before by Anna George (Penguin 2014) ISBN: 9781743482780

Anna George Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Anna-George/297768810376242

NOTE: Abuse in any form – emotional or physical – is not okay, and it’s important to seek help. If you, or someone you know, are experiencing domestic abuse, help is available and in Australia and you can find out more here.

Reach Out: Domestic Violence Support: http://au.reachout.com/domestic-violence-support

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THE NIGHT GUEST by Fiona McFarlane

THE NIGHT GUEST by Fiona McFarlane

The Night Guest

Fiona McFarlane’s debut novel The Night Guest is a well-crafted story that focuses on Ruth, an elderly widow living alone in a beach house on the sand dunes of a NSW coastal town.

Ruth awakens one night to hear a tiger huffing and panting in her lounge room. While she knows it’s not real, the arrival of the tiger unleashes in Ruth a flood of memories from her youth spent in Fiji that begin to overlap, encroaching on her nights in hot, steamy, cloying clarity. In the midst of this fraying tapestry appears Frida, a carer claiming to be “sent by the government” to cook and clean for Ruth. Frida is larger than life with hairstyles that change on a daily basis, and a robust enthusiasm for cleaning, and she soon insinuates her way into Ruth’s life, house and heart.

Ruth’s eldest son Jeffrey is conflicted: he’s suspicious of this new arrival but also glad that someone is there to look after his mother. Frida charms Jeffery into complacency, yet he remains uneasy. Nothing dramatic happens but as the story gently unfolds over days spent together in the beach house, Ruth begins to detect an underlying foreboding that she can’t quite define. She is aware that her childhood memories are colliding with the present but struggles to untangle the threads. Ruth reaches out to Richard, an unrequited love from her teenage years in Fiji, and after 50 years apart they reunite to discover their love is for one another is still alive. They begin to plan a life together, however, Frida and Ruth’s deteriorating memory conspire against the couple’s newly-found love.

McFarlane has approached this story of love, ageing loneliness, and deceit in impeccable style. The writing is subtle and sensitive, the pace slow and meandering in some parts, chaotic and in others, until the underlying tension accelerates to reach a sinister crescendo.

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane. Published by Penguin Books Australia.

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A bundle of good books

WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN READING LATELY?

I go through bouts with my reading. Sometimes for days, or even weeks, I am too busy or not inspired to pick up a book but then at other times I’m engulfed by the urge to read. I’ve been on a bit of a book buying bender the past few months – I blame my Kindle, it makes buying (and reading) books so very easy. So many good reads not enough time. I have of late endeavoured to make a dent in the ever-growing ‘stack’ hidden in my Kindle’s slender frame.

These books (below) have kept me up late at night, distracted me through the day – just one more page, I promise, and fulfilled my desires for a good story, interesting plot lines, well-developed characters, strong writing, unique writing styles and of course, entertainment value. Some are more literary and, in my opinion, better reads than others, but different genres fulfil different needs – the trash novel has as much place as the high-brow.

HHH is written by Laurent Binet and translated by Sam Taylor. Published by Random House in Australia (2012).

The Boat  – written by Nam Le and has won numerous literary awards. Published by Penguin Books Australia (2008).

All that I Am – written by Anna Funder has won numerous literary awards. Published by Penguin Books Australia (2011).

A Sport and a Pastime – written by James Salter. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1967).

The Street Sweeper – written by Elliot Perlman. Published by Random House in Australia (2011).

On the Road – written by Jack Kerouac. My copy published by Penguin Modern Classics (2011).

The Passage – written by Justin Cronin. Part one of the trilogy. Published by Orion (2010).

The Twelve – written by Justin Cronin. Part two of the trilogy. Published by Orion (2012).