The Woman Before Me by Ruth Dugdall
‘There will be a child. . . It will bind you forever, but pain will follow.’
Across the top of the waxy cover of The Woman Before Me, 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. A troubled woman, Rose falls pray to her own emotions, ‘I closed my eyes and imagined I was pretty. I imagined that you loved me.’ 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.
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 recalling information in a manner both engaging and appropriate to age. It’s interesting that as I was considering this minor flaw, Dugdall redeemed herself – 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 in adult vernacular.
Rose is a manipulative and disturbed woman, ‘a puzzle’ or ‘a crossword with one clue missing,’ and yet Dugdall managed to endear me to her protagonist. Portrayed as jealous, bitter and unhinged, I somehow found myself sympathising with Rose, even as her character became more and more sinister. The subtle skill employed in the formation of the narrator is impressive.
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.