What Came Before
Penguin Books Australia
‘My name is David James Forrester. I’m a solicitor. Tonight, at 6.10, I killed my wife. This is my statement.’
David sits in his car, sick to his stomach and barely able to order his thoughts, but determined to record his statement of events. His wife, Elle, hovers over her lifeless body as it lies on the laundry floor of the house they shared. David thinks back on their relationship – intimate, passionate, intense – and what led to this violent endpoint. Elle traces their shared past as well and her version of events gradually reveals how wrong she was about the man she’d loved.
Dark, atmospheric and gripping, What Came Before is a stunning literary thriller about the risks you take when you fall in love.
After reading this book the hardest question I must ask myself is which part of me responds to this book and therefore determines how the review will be written; is it the view point of a Women’s Studies Graduate (B Soc Sc), is it the view point of a once upon a time worker in a Women’s Refuge, is it the viewpoint of a worker in the Film and Television Industry, is the view point of a passionate crime fiction/psychological thriller reader or the view point of a modern mature woman who has experienced some of the manipulation and violence described in this novel? I think the answer to this question is a complicated one but I guess I will write a little from all perspectives and maybe a whole lot about how I responded to this brilliant expose of domestic violence and *limerence which coincidentally is the title of the film Elle writes in this novel – her story one of a of life imitating film… the script Dave helped to create.
Anan George writes a compelling narrative about spinning out of control with the giddiness of love; the type of love written about in romance books, portrayed on the big and little screen, of intense attachments and the willingness to suspend any doubts or faults of the person you attach the limerence to- besotted, infatuated, devoted…in love… doesn’t begin to describe the intensity of the feeling that you need to be reciprocated. You cannot survive without your partner and when cracks in the relationship start to show you work hard to cover them up and believe you can help mend these ugly traits. You ignore the little warnings, hairs that rise on the back of your neck, the words spoken harshly or loudly, the grip on your arm… the simmering below the surface barely controlled violence you can feel – you tell yourself you can change them (you can’t), you blame yourself for causing the black moods (you didn’t), you look for excuses to tell yourself or try to placate the violator and try and diffuse any anger before it explodes; you become responsible for his rage (how can that be?). Eventually the limerence fades and you are stuck in a relationship that most find hard to escape without help – and the violator has already done a really good job of isolating you from your friends and support networks – work and personal and has brow beaten your self-esteem to a tatter, all that is left is an unravelling thread…Such is the love Elle feels for Dave. Such is the damage he inflicts upon her.
To say this is a powerful emotional read is an understatement. To say this is a powerful psychological thriller is simply stating the truth. Anna George generates such authentic voices in the voices of Dave and of Elle; the script between them, internalised and spoken is so potent and accurate the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up! These two characters are intricately and vibrantly drawn.
Thorough this narrative we experience some very poignant revelations and some very clever use of stories within the story; Elle reads a book by Katherine Hepburn who painfully disclosures her own sad relationship with Spencer Tracey – a love that diminished her sense of self; “after almost three decades with Spencer Tracy, the great Kate hadn’t known why she stayed with him. She hadn’t known his feelings for her. But she’d tended to him happily and tried hard not to ruffle him. She’d even tried to forsake some of her best qualities because she suspected he didn’t like them. Because what they had, for her at least, was bliss.” Elle eventually recognises that she too has surrendered her own sense of self to appease her husband and subdue the menace that lives within him. Her film now imitates the life she now has – of two dancers out of sync, out of step… involved in a dangerous dance.
Elle’s life, like so many others, is one where domestic violence is a lesson learned firsthand. As Elle states; “She was taught nothing of the risks posed by those who claim to love you, the risks that manifest at night in family kitchens, or after the party. It would have helped, she thought, if someone had explained the warning signs: the mood swings and outbursts. And what they were; covert attempts to control. Then she could have had a language and a context for how she felt today. Better she would have been forewarned.” Thanks Anna George for opening up this dialogue, for giving us words and language and emotions and consequences that enable such conversations to be had.
Control…treating women as objects, possessions, using violence, threats, manipulation and abuse; physical, sexual and psychological (and in some cases economic control over) are all part of the bag of tricks used to control others (usually women). As Reg (retired Queen’s Counsel) states to Dave “You cannot kill your wife because you have lost control of her…And we cannot continue to blame women for their death.”… “I gather you were hoping for reconciliation and she was being difficult? What precisely did she say or do?”Reg suggests it is preferable to face the consequences than hide from them…no chance. Dave cannot take any control or responsibility for his actions. It is always someone else’s fault. “She made me….”
Back to the book- a stunning cast, a wonderfully complex plot, a few twists and turns and a surprise ending; drama, tragedy, love, marriage, death, violence- real and perceived …dark and atmospheric, this book has it all and shares it’s story powerfully and honestly.
*Limerence is an involuntary state of mind which results from a romantic attraction to another person combined with an overwhelming, obsessive need to have one’s feelings reciprocated. The psychologist Dorothy Tennov coined the term “limerence” in her 1979 book Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love to describe the concept that had grown out of her work in the mid-1960s, when she interviewed over 500 people on the topic of love.
More recently, limerence has been defined in relation to obsessive compulsive disorder as “an involuntary interpersonal state that involves intrusive, obsessive, and compulsive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are contingent on perceived emotional reciprocation from the object of interest”. Limerence has also been defined in terms of the potentially inspirational effects and the relationship to attachment theory, which is not exclusively sexual, as being “an involuntary potentially inspiring state of adoration and attachment to a limerent object involving intrusive and obsessive thoughts, feelings and behaviors from euphoria to despair, contingent on perceived emotional reciprocation” Attachment theory emphasizes that “many of the most intense emotions arise during the formation, the maintenance, the disruption, and the renewal of attachment relationships”. It has been suggested that “the state of limerence is the conscious experience of sexual incentive motivation” during attachment formation: “a kind of subjective experience of sexual incentive motivation” during the “intensive…pair-forming stage” of human affectionate bonding. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limerence