Following an invitation on Twitter to read and evaluate books for independent publisher Legend Press, I’ve opted to post book reviews on my blog. In exchange for an honest review of their most recent publications, I get a free book, which, being a student, is always a bonus. Seems like a win-win situation to me, so I hope you can all stick with me and enjoy my up-and-coming reviews and recommendations.
The Woman Before Me, Ruth Dugdall
Following some postal issues having moved back to Aberystwyth for my final year at University, I finally got my hands on the waxy cover of Ruth Dugdall’s newest offering. Across the top, a banner reads ‘New Edition of Bestselling and Award-Winning Crime Novel.’ Although the book could easily be described as such, to me, it’s about much more. This novel is not only about crime; it’s about passion, jealousy and fundamental human weakness.
Rose Wilks, a woman older than her years, suffers more than one terrible loss during her lifetime. In the very first pages we learn that Rose is a prisoner, accused and convicted of manslaughter. As her probation officer, Cate Austin, attempts to assess Rose’s suitability for parole, she must also separate her personal life as a mother from her professional role.
‘I closed my eyes and imagined I was pretty. I imagined that you loved me.’
The novel is split between a third person narrative following Cate, and the first-person perspective of Rose Wilks. Considering Dugdall’s past as a probation officer, it seems unusual that she opted to embody Rose’s character more fully than Cate’s.
Rose’s personal account of the events leading to her stay in prison come in the form of ‘Black Book Entries,’ an interesting framing device which reminded me of the diary entries throughout S J Watson’s debut Before I Go To Sleep. As she collects her memories, Rose recounts moments from her difficult childhood, her lack of guidance growing up and the desperation that persisted through her adult life. When I came across the childhood recollections, I felt there was a tension between the fictional adult writing her diary and the child Dugdall was trying to capture. Would Rose, looking back at her past, still remember her mother’s medication as sweets? Would she still remember her father’s affair as innocently as she recounts it? This is, however, unfortunately one of the difficulties with recounting information in a manner both engaging and appropriate to age. It’s interesting that as I was considering this minor flaw, Dugdall redeemed herself when Rose concludes, ‘when I think of it I’m back there again. I’m no longer in prison; I’m just a girl,’ justifying her childlike recollections to an extent, despite having written them in adult vernacular.
‘He looked at me carefully; as if I were a puzzle he couldn’t quite figure out. A crossword with one clue missing.’
Often, we like, or at least relate to a narrator in a novel or the lead in a film, despite their inevitable flaws, even when the characters are undesirable. The audience root for Johnny Depp in Public Enemies as he escapes prison and evades capture, despite the fact that John Dillinger, (who Depp portrays) was a violent criminal. There is often only a thinly veiled form of manipulation in texts revealing the way in which the writer has managed to capture the audience’s sympathy. However, in Dugdall’s book, it’s not clear how she managed to endear me to Rose Wilks. Portrayed as jealous, bitter and unhinged, I somehow found myself sympathising with Rose, even as her character became more and more sinister.
‘There will be a child. . . It will bind you forever, but pain will follow.’
Winner of several prizes and shortlisted for many more, The Woman Before Me is a novel about desperation, hurt, desire, need, envy and greed. Suffolk provides a widely visible backdrop to the pain and suffering of Rose’s character, and whilst the novel is sometimes disturbing and emotional, it’s a truly astonishing piece of fiction. Dugdall felt strongly about exploring and revealing the darker aspects of the human psyche, claiming that ‘flawed though it inevitably is, it is also truer than anything else I have written to date.’ Capturing and enclosing the terrifying truth that envy can be stronger than love, and that lack of self-worth can be fatal; if you like Jodi Picoult, you’ll love The Woman Before Me.
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