Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 255 pages; 2014.
‘My name is David James Forrester. I’m a solicitor. Tonight, at 6.10, I killed my wife. This is my statement.’
So begins Anna George’s debut novel, What Became Before, a dark and disturbing look at a marriage that goes completely off the rails set in Melbourne’s inner-west.
The book charts the two-year relationship between Elle Nolan, a former lawyer turned successful film maker, who is independent and lives alone, and David Forrester, a solicitor caught in a well-paying job that he hates.
When they meet Elle is in her mid-30s, David is 42. Both are a different points in their lives and careers, and seem almost complete opposites, but there’s a spark between them which they flame into something stronger.
When they initially get together the sex is electric, so much so that Elle shelves her original idea that their union was to be a simple one-night stand. Before she knows it, David has practically moved in to her home in Seddon, a Western suburb that he hates and she loves, and spend every spare moment together. Happiness forever after beckons.
But, as one would expect from a novel that starts out with such a dark and intriguing opening line, things start to go a bit awry. When Elle first notices David’s tendency to be immature and spiteful, she dismisses it, thinking she can change him. But when that behaviour escalates to violence, she breaks it off with him.
Yet David is a tenacious man — and won’t let her go. Over the course of two years, the pair have more break-ups than you can poke a stick at, but they always end up back together again — until that one crucial night when David attacks her in the kitchen and ends her life.
A deeply unsettling read
Admittedly, I wasn’t sure about this novel when I began it. I thought the characters were slightly pretentious and I found the constant descriptions of sex in the opening chapters a little off-putting. But there’s something about What Came Before that worms itself into your brain, so much so that whenever I put it down because I had to go to work or do chores or whatever, I found myself itching to pick it up again.
And the characters got under my skin, to the point that I couldn’t shake them off even after I’d finished the book feeling exhausted and drained. Now, almost a week down the line, I’m still thinking about their peculiar, but probably more common than we realise, relationship and wishing I could have stepped in and helped them sort it out.
One of the greatest strengths of the novel is its unusual structure. It’s written in the third person, but the author writes from both character’s perspectives and intertwines their narratives so it’s hard to separate one from the other (a bit like their relationship): David’s narrative focuses on the night he murders his wife and sees his future life unspool before him, while Elle’s is told retrospectively as she hovers over her lifeless body and recalls the story of their relationship from beginning to end.
The prose style is often short, clipped, fast-paced. But it’s also rather stylish in places and feels slick and contemporary. The author is very good at capturing that feeling of being in love — romantic love and limerance are recurring themes — and of the give and take required to make a relationship work. And the characterisation is superb: you might not like either Elle or David but they feel real and all-too human.
All in all, What Came Before is a dark, atmospheric and gripping read, one that brims with suspense and depicts the true horror of an abusive relationship with great sensitivity and insight. It’s full of twists and turns and dotted with little shocks, which gradually become more and more unsettling, but this isn’t your usual run-of-the-mill psychological thriller. There’s something greater at play here, and perhaps the secret lies in the author’s afterword, where she states:
It took me over a decade to write What Came Before. During that time, I read countless news stories of women killed by their partners or exes. I’d like to acknowledge those women, as well as the women and children I’ve alluded to in this book, whose lives were so devastatingly cut short.
This book is currently only available in ebook format in the US. It has not been published in the UK but can be ordered from the BookDepository.com with free worldwide delivery.