anna george, what came before

Some books just feel Australian straight away. A friend recently asked what made Australian literature different, and while of course not everything is the same, I feel that there is a general difference between literature from my home country and that from, say, the American South (a style that I really enjoy even when the content is invariably eye-wateringly bleak.) It’s something about the use of first person, along with the short, sharp sentences and not long flowing prose. I think Australian authors will use less words in a smart way while American South authors will use a thousand words to paint a beautiful picture. While I’m throwing around ridiculous generalisations, I’d posit that in England, the general style is quite clear and simple, and the plot intricacies themselves are the strong point. None of these are flaws, they are just differences. And as I’m not generally inclined to shoehorn myself off this couch for any solid examples that I could use as reference points, let’s just use this as a jumping-off point: do you think that there is a tangible difference between Australian crime fiction (or literature in general) and those from overseas? I’d love to know what you think.

What Came Before felt immediately Australian, though of course I was biased: the hype had reached me before the book did. A dear colleague of mine is pals with the author, and thought I would love it, so I was happy to have at it, not least because Australian crime is my favourite kind. (There’s a sentence that feels very odd to write down. Don’t do crime, kids.) Somewhere in the litany of talk I had heard about it, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was mentioned, as it always is when a book is published nowadays. It’s this year’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I have read two books that share a similar vein, but the other four hundred with a connection on the cover are just trying to ride Flynn’s coattails. Gone Girl was excellent, yes. Other books are not the same just because they have a woman in them, or it’s a psychological thriller. Stop it, publishers: sell it on its own merits. Comparisons are insufferable. The only other similarities it has with Gone Girl is that it’s not quite the same as other things you’ve read, and it toes the line of crime and fiction.

Elle Nolan lives in a heady, jasmine-soaked world that is the cause of some readerly jealousy: she is a screenwriter who produced a successful independent movie and is now writing the script for a second one; she lives in a west Melbourne townhouse that sounds divine; she has friends, drama, looks, and love. Well, she did. As the book begins, her husband, David Forrester, is driving away from the scene of the crime, having stabbed and strangled her and left her behind to hover uncertainly over her own lifeless body, trying to figure out how the romance of the century came to this. And so we follow David as he tries pathetically to escape the ramifications of what he’s done, and Elle herself as she reflects upon the past. If it sounds a bit cheesy, it’s not – there is a lot of ghoul-ish type writing out there and when it’s done well, it feels as natural as a flesh-and-blood character. After all, they are not real. Except when they make you feel so acutely that they are.

Reviews for this can be cagey on the subject of the book. I don’t think I’m about to issue any spoilers, but feel free to skip the following if you’re at all worried (this is also a trigger warning, of sorts, which seems faintly pointless when it comes to crime books because shit always gets real, but I do feel they’re important.) At the beginning, it is clear that Elle has said something so horrific that David could not help but kill her; I came into this assuming that we would realise that Elle was a manipulative fiend who deserved it. And Elle, being a human being and all, is not perfect, but that is not what this is about. It’s about a relationship that starts with flowers and beachside picnics and movie festivals and all the sparkle of love, and then follows a trajectory of abuse and unhappiness. It is so unflinchingly real, how a woman with all the wit of your dearest friend can find themselves in such a situation. For those out there who are so completely convinced it would never happen to them, or any of those other vicious and false ideas about domestic abuse, it’s a real eye-opener. David Forrester is an abuser. He is also charming, handsome, lavish with praise, well-connected, funny, rich. He has an ex-step-daughter that he adores in a genuine, heartbreaking, non-abusive way. He is not someone who came in swinging on the first date. They never are.

Reading the decline of Elle’s well-being and David’s acidic mix of self-hatred and violence is as engaging as any crime. As he runs from his actions, tension fairly leaks off the page onto your fingers. Elle’s blood is not the only shed in this book, and it remains a taut thriller the whole way through. The constant edginess is as much a part of Elle’s situation as it is part of the book itself. I don’t think I even realised that until I typed it just then. I finished this weeks ago, but it’s still in my head, rumbling around, causing trouble. One other thing I loved about this: that other characters have no truck with David. When he reports to Reg, an elderly family friend and lawyer what he’s done, instead of rolling his eyes and saying, “Women, right?” as you almost come to expect from such moments, he says, staring right at David, “…we cannot continue to blame women for their death.” Immediately after that line I tweeted the verbal equivalent of a fist pump, I was so pleased to see it there, in writing, in a book, in my hands.

I hear rumours that George is working on another book. When her debut novel has such strength in both the prose and the ideas, it does cause just a little bit of excitement about what might come next. Part of me wants it to be What Came After: A Happily Ever After Sunshine and Rainbows Story, but a bigger part anticipates something as equally meaty even in its horror.

(Kudos also to the cover designer for What Came Before; you know I love being critical of crime covers and this one deserves none. It is strong and ambiguous: what is on her cheek, a bruise, or lipstick? Yes, very good, A+ would put face out on a shelf again.)

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