What Came Before by Anna George

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

What Came Before Anna GeorgeThis is the dramatic opening of What Came Before, the brilliant psychological thriller debut by Melbourne writer Anna George. The rest of the novel reveals how the murder came to happen.

We see Forrester’s wife, Elle, before her death. She’s working in the film industry, having left a career in law. With one successful film behind her, she is busy directing another. This latest is about “limerance”, the early stages of romantic love.

Elle encounters Forrester, a high-powered lawyer she remembers from her legal days. She is immediately attracted. By what? His looks, the interest in art they share. Certainly not his sociability, as he proves indifferent to her friends. As they begin their relationship, she experiences an almost delusional infatuation – the “limerance” of her film’s title – which leads her to ignore warning signs that the relationship isn’t healthy.

Unknown to Elle, Forrester’s marriage has disintegrated, leaving him angry at his ex and missing his young step-daughter. He’s also a frustrated artist, a control freak and a very unhappy man.

Throughout the narrative, point of view switches from Forrester, as he dictates his “witness statement” and consults a retired QC for legal counsel, to Elle, as she lies in death – or the imagined transition that follows death. This dual narration, swapping tenses between past and present, makes for compelling reading as we are led inexorably to the inciting incident, Elle’s death.

One question often asked about women in abusive relationships is, “Why did they stay?” What Came Before answers this question. “Limerance” makes us idolise our partners, letting us see only what we want to see; tells us to forgive their failings, to look only at their good qualities; blinds us to the escalating “cycle of violence”. The longer we stay, the more we believe they are essentially “good”, that their character defects are a result of damage done in childhood, that we are connected to them in some essential way, the more dangerous the relationship becomes.

Anna George has drawn on her own experience* of “emotional abuse” to create the relationship between Forrester and Elle, and her experience shows. For me, though not for all reviewers, she manages to make Elle sympathetic, despite her irrational choices. George also conveys what it’s like to be the man who resorts to violence, his self-justifications, his belief that he was provoked. If I had one criticism of the characterisation of What Came Before, it’s of the moment when Forrester makes a transition from “emotional abuser” to “physical abuser”. For me, the transition appeared too abrupt. Thinking about his behaviour in terms of “narcissistic rage”, however, I can make more sense of it. Far from being egoistic, Narcissists lack the internal resilience that would allow a healthier psyche to take criticism, perceived rejection or opposition. In this light, George gets the psychology for Forrester right; the result is believable and frightening.

The publishers have described this novel as “literary”, and in the vein of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. What Came Before is clever, like Flynn’s novel, but the cleverness isn’t at the expense of its emotional truth. The characters come across as real, their motivations consistent, their delusions understandable. Does this make it “literary”? It’s a well-written psychological thriller which deserves to become a best-seller.

Anna George has been added to my already impressive list of “must read” Australian female crime and suspense authors. I can’t wait for her next book.

* Anna George mentioned this in an interview with Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling blog, here.

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This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly supplied to me by the publishers via Netgalley. What Came Before has already been reviewed for the AWW challenge by:

Author: Anna George
Title: What Came Before
Published:25/06/2014
ISBN-13:9780670077731
ISBN-10:0670077739
Publisher:Penguin Aus
Imprint:Viking

Suspense and thriller readers – where are you?

Hades Candice FoxOn Tuesday book bloggers from around Australia attended a “National Book Bloggers Forum” at the offices of Random House Australia (RHA) in North Sydney.

Digital gurus, editors and the RHA publicity team all pitched in. We were given insights about Search Engine Optimisation and how to use Google Analytics to drive relevant traffic to our blogs. We were told about up-and-coming titles and given a goodie bag full of books. Authors including Judy Nunn, Sneh Roy and Bruce McCabe spoke about their books and writing process. Throughout the day, Twitter was awash with the hashtag #NBBF14. In the breaks, and over a generous lunch, names, cards, twitter handles and blog URLs were swapped among participants.

I was especially interested in the pitches for thrillers, including Bruce McCabe’s debut Skinjob (in the goodie bag, so more of that another time) and Candice Fox’s forthcoming follow up to Hades, Eden.

Eden – no cover available – was introduced by publisher Beverley Cousins. Cousins pitched Fox as an “Australian Gillian Flynn”. I’m not convinced of that. Cousins was once editor for the Nicci French writing duo – from memory, she worked on Secret Smile, one of the creepiest of the NF books. To me, that’s a closer fit with Fox and Hades. (If you’ve read my reviews of Hades, Flynn’s Gone Girl, and my discussion of Nicci French’s writing,  you’ll know what I mean.) Maybe Eden will be different.

In the open forum at the end, I asked whether there were any other bloggers who review crime and suspense novels. Only one person put up her hand, Debbish from Debbishdotcom. Most of the others, I think, specialise in YA and teen fiction, although I did come across a “vlogger” who reads classics, and there were at least two who specialise in nonfiction.

So where are all the crime fiction readers/bloggers? Maybe they all live in Melbourne?

And, while we’re at it, where were all the men? There were only two men among 35+ bloggers, a gender imbalance that caused Bruce McCabe to comment, “Who are the real readers out there? Spend one minute in this room and you’ll know.”

Do you read crime, thrillers and/or suspense fiction?

Bruce McCabe addresses National Book Bloggers Forum 2014

Bruce McCabe addresses National Book Bloggers Forum 2014 – photo courtesy of Dymmocks Books

 

Hades by Candice Fox – a disturbing debut

When I first read Candice Fox’s debut novel Hades earlier this year, I couldn’t bring myself to review it. Its themes are so dark, I couldn’t get over the emotional impact it had on me enough to write about it.

Dark themes, drawn from a chaotic childhood. Fox grew up as part of a “shared” foster household where encounters with police and visits to prison were routine.

As an author, I’ve spent years trying to shut out the late-night knocking, the grisly stories half-heard around the kitchen corner, the screaming and the crying and the wild eyes, by writing myself into safe places, predictable places. But lately, all that darkness has been creeping back in.

Because, really, the best writers will tell you that you should write what you know. I’ve known how bad the world can be from the very beginning. (Read more here.)

Hades Candice FoxRereading the book months later I was able to detach. I knew already the terrain it covered and could concentrate on the author’s skill – in coming up with the plot, in characterising the villains as heroes and the heroes as both victims and perpetrators, and in setting the scene.

Hades is a hard book to classify, though its title gives some clue. “Hades” refers to one of the book’s characters, a “fixer” for Sydney’s underworld who takes in two orphaned children, Eden and Eric, and raises them to become police officers – and avengers of their murdered parents. But Hades the Fixer isn’t the central character; the book’s narrator Detective Frank Bennett is. The story switches from third person flashbacks showing Hades and the children, to Frank’s first-person narration, to the points of view of various victims of a serial killer. The hunt for the serial killer provides the chief narrative drive and opportunity for moral questioning of the story. In this context, “Hades” refers more to the place of torment and suffering that many of the book’s characters appear to occupy. The language of morality pervades the book, nudging it from crime into the realms of horror – without ever being supernatural. As Fox has named Stephen King as the person she’d most like to be trapped in a lift with, perhaps this horror element isn’t surprising.

As crime-horror, the novel poses a number of ethical and moral questions. What creates a killer – nature or nurture? When is taking another human being’s life justified – if ever? What happens to victims of crime? What moral stance would we take if faced with the prospect of imminent death versus the chance of survival? Does every human being deserve to live, no matter what?

With a page-turning plot and enviable style, Fox’s narrative forces the main character – and the reader – to confront these questions.

One of the admirable features of Fox’s writing is her way of accomplishing several narrative tasks at once. In the following example, where Frank the narrator observes his new colleagues, Fox manages to characterise the narrator, provide backstory, introduce secondary characters in an interesting way, set the mood and foreshadow major themes:

My mother had been a wildlife warrior, the kind who would stop and fish around in the pouches of kangaroo corpses for joeys and scrape half-squashed birds off the road to give them pleasant deaths or fix them. One morning she brought me home a box of baby owls to care for, three in all, abandoned by their mother. The men and women in the office made me think of those owls, the way they clustered into a corner of the shoebox when I’d opened it, the way their eyes howled black and empty with terror. (Kindle location 142)

Rereading Hades, I highlighted countless examples of fine writing, way too many to include here.

The overall impression created by the story is that good and evil aren’t separable. As Eric remarks to Frank about working for the police:

This job is about knowing each other, Frank. It’s about knowing each other’s secrets and ignoring them. We’re all good guys here. No one’s better than anyone else. We’re all dirty. We’ve all got something shadowing us.

It’s my hunch Fox thinks this is also true about human nature.

Hades is a very interesting read.

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Hades by Candice Fox was published 1st January 2014 by Random House Books Australia (Bantam imprint) ISBN: 9780857981172. Review copy kindly supplied by the publishers via NetGalley.

This review forms part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge.

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