Even if you’re only vaguely aware of the Australian literary scene you’d be hard pressed not to have seen or heard something about WHAT CAME BEFORE over the past few months. A debut novel by Melbourne writer Anna George it has a dramatic opening in which a man starts making a statement into his dictaphone where he admits that he’s just killed his wife. The novel proceeds (or precedes mostly) from there to pick apart the two-year relationship between David and Elle and explain – as much as such things can ever be truly understood – how it came to such an end.
Where the book excels for me is in its depiction of its two central characters. Elle is a smart, capable woman yet she slides into a dysfunctional relationship with David and stays there even as her doubts increase. David is neither knuckle-dragging nor monster and is self-aware enough, at least at times, to know the difference between the man he wants to be and the one he seems to be. In short, they are not the “other” people that bad things happen to. They are just like you and me.
Even if you haven’t yourself been involved in an abusive relationship I’d be prepared to wager there isn’t a reader alive who wouldn’t recognise the realism in it. Surely we have all lied to ourselves and our loved ones about some aspect of our life that isn’t as it should be; isn’t as we display it to the world. And many will have watched someone they know be swallowed up in the kind of self-delusions that Elle, and David too, succumb to. The depiction of Elle is particularly perfect. Her excitement at the intensity of her love for David. Her willingness to throw her natural caution to the wind due to the unexpected strength of her feelings. Her dawning recognition that not everything about David is good; that sometimes he scares her. The internal arguments she has with herself about whether or not to stay and how much of his behaviour is her fault. Her determination to believe she is in control. That she can change him through sheer force of her will. Even when her strangled body is lying on the laundry floor of her home and she’s floating ethereally above it Elle is very, very believable. As is David. Even when he’s managing to blame Elle for being strangled by him.
As a story the book didn’t work quite as well for me. The opening – though dramatic – made it impossible for me to be caught up in the early, heady days of Elle and David’s relationship. In telling me that the relationship was doomed from the outset I felt…cheated…I suppose in not being able to experience the roller coaster effect of a good thing gone horribly wrong. Instead from page one I was just waiting for David to falter, as I had been told he would. Perhaps that was the author’s intent, perhaps she wanted to show that it was never a good thing to start with, but I couldn’t help thinking that in this instance I’d have preferred a more traditional placement of beginning, middle and end.
There are also some really clunky parts of the novel. Elle is a film writer and director and is in the throws of making a romantic comedy during her relationship with David. I thought the author tried way too hard to draw parallels between the film and Elle’s life, to the point I wanted to shout “OK I get it, can we move on please“. And there’s the ending which I thought gimmicky and was, perhaps perversely, disappointed by. But for me the most significant flaw is the entire thread which deals with what comes after David’s strangling of his wife. It isn’t a huge component of the novel but it doesn’t feel nearly as well put together to me as the flashbacks which make up the bulk of the narrative. And at some points it is decidedly awkward. For example at one point David has gone to visit his godfather, who is a lawyer like David. He wants a sense from Reg about his chances, legally, and is dismayed when Reg reports on recent changes to the law. For me Reg’s dialogue is too…perfect…as if it had been crafted by a speechwriter in advance of a politician’s make-or-break speech on the subject of domestic violence
‘We live to higher standards today’. Reg focuses in tight on David. ‘You cannot kill your wife because you have lost control of her.’ …
‘And we,’ says Reg, ‘cannot continue to blame women for their deaths.’ (pg85)
Don’t get me wrong, I agree completely with the sentiments expressed I just didn’t feel they were natural. If it had been a movie Reg would have turned to the camera, Frank Underwood style, and broken the fourth wall to spout these lines rather than use them as dialogue uttered in what should have been a scene of panic and confusion on Reg’s part. This, and a few other sections like it, jarred and took me out of the otherwise consuming and enveloping sense of realism the novel had.
The subject of domestic violence needs to be raised, discussed, brought out into the light. Anna George has done so thoughtfully and with rare accessibility. It is difficult, if you are fortunate enough to have never been involved in such circumstances, to understand how and why people – victims and perpetrators – end up at the point of no return. WHAT CAME BEFORE offers real insight into this complex subject by depicting both Elle and David credibly and offering a plausible explanation without ever confusing that for justification. For me the pursuit of this admittedly admirable achievement seems to have overshadowed consideration of narrative structure and style at some points but overall it’s a book I’d find hard not to recommend, even with the odd caveat.
This is the first of what I hope to be 25 reviews I will write as part of my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015. Why don’t you join the fun?
Publisher: Penguin 
Length: 254 pages
This work by http://fairdinkumcrime.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.