What Came Before
Penguin Books Aus
Copy courtesy of the publisher
“My name is David James Forrester. I’m a solicitor. Tonight, at 6.10, I killed my wife.
This is my statement.”
David is making a recording into a dictaphone, sitting in his car in Melbourne’s inner-west. He’s just done a horrible thing but he’s determined to get his story down, record what happened from his point of view. He knows that he needs advice, he needs someone to help him. As he wonders what to do, sick by what has just happened, David thinks back on his and Elle’s tumultuous two year relationship and how it led up to this night.
He isn’t the only one thinking back. Floating above her body, Elle too is thinking of how they met, how she fell in love with him and how it fell apart. Before she met David, her life was content. She was 34, a successful filmmaker, friend and aunt to two lovely nephews. She’d just bought a new house. She’d left the corporate world behind a long time ago and made her home out in Seddon, a somewhat forgotten suburb. Then she meets David and is utterly captivated by him. He has a power over her that no man has ever come close to achieving before. When things are good with David…they are very very good. He is witty, funny, intelligent and successful. He admires her career and contributes thoughts and opinions on her latest film script.
But when things are bad with David….they are very very bad.
If the first sentence of this book doesn’t suck you in (which is the one I’ve quoted to open my review here) then nothing will. This book opens with David in his car after committing a terrible act. He’s a lawyer, so on one hand, he’s surprisingly calm and rational about what he must do next. However, there’s another part of him that’s sick and panicking, shaking and scared. There’s anger as well, in a way, that he has been manipulated into doing this. That somehow, he can blame Elle for all of the actions he has committed not just on this night, but since they met. And from there, the book takes the reader back to David and Elle’s first meeting. To what should’ve been a one night stand but kept going. The good times and the bad….how David managed to hide portions of himself from Elle. And that even afterwards, when they were revealed, how she was unable to sever their relationship. She tried – several times. But he was always able to win his way back.
What Came Before is a gripping insight into domestic violence and showcases how a strong and confident woman like Elle can find herself in a situation where she’s enmeshed with a man such as David, who has temper and alcohol issues, who manipulates and justifies his every action. He apologises but often not sincerely and finds ways to make Elle believe that somehow his loss of control has her issue, not his. Elle used to be a lawyer herself before she turned her hand to filmmaking and I think George has taken great pains to create a character who is both logical but also romantic. Who possesses the ability to at times, see what is happening and try and change it but at other times, seems unable to see the real David as he begins to appear. There’s a back and forth of the relationship and as Elle herself states, very few women escape a violent relationship on their first attempt. On average, it will take a woman seven times before she can leave for good.
Every year in Australia, women are killed in domestic situations by their partner or ex-partner. It is a growing, shocking crime and the laws are simply unable to help prevent it, in most cases. There are few places women can safely seek shelter, either due to lack of funding or lack of knowledge that they exist. And if women do get the courage to leave and go to the police, in most cases, apprehended violence orders are barely worth the paper they’re printed on. You only need to glance casually through a newspaper on almost any given week to find a story of a woman who has been murdered by her partner or former partner, sometimes publicly as in this case in Sunshine recently. This book references real-life cases where men have terrorised their former partners in other ways – Robert Farquharson driving his 3 sons into a Winchelsea dam and Arthur Phillip Freeman throwing his five year old daughter Darcie from the top of the West Gate Bridge are incidents that horrified an entire country. But for every event that makes the news, there are thousands more that don’t, that barely rate a mention, that don’t incite the public emotional response.
This book showcases beautifully the disintegration of a relationship, the things that Elle overlooks or willfully ignores. Her closes friend Mira is desperately worried about her and seems able to better perceive David. I’m not sure if Elle’s sexual response to David is a great inhibitor of allowing her to truly see him at times but this is an example of how people can keep coming back to each other after break ups, even getting married, when things have been deeply troubled for some time. David has an inner restlessness, an intensity that at first, seems somewhat attractive but then comes to be seen as almost a mania. His attempts at justification, after the fact, speak volumes:
“In a nutshell, she’s pushed me past the point of no return. And I lost it.”
David thinks he’s got his legal defense all sewn up only to be told:
“We live to higher standards today.” Reg focuses in tight on David. “You cannot kill your wife because you have lost control of her.”
“And we,” says Reg. “Cannot continue to blame women for their deaths.”
Dave wants to yell: Why the fuck not?
And sadly, I don’t think this is a rare occurrence, men like David believing that they’ve been driven to this point by their errant wives who won’t obey or want to leave, or whatever. That there should be some sort of justification for murdering a woman who has angered you and given you good reason. That women are objects to control and that when they assert some of their own authority (as Elle does here, that so incenses David), it becomes almost imperative to take it back. No matter the end.
To say that I was unsettled throughout this book would be an understatement. It’s set close to where I live, which perhaps helped cement a bit of a feeling of affinity for Elle, who could be someone from my book club. I don’t often read books set around here, being the ‘undesirable’ side of Melbourne at the best of times, but it showed Seddon and some of its surrounds in a new light. However there’s rather a lot devoted to Elle’s writing of her new script and then filming of the movie, which serves to slow things down and often distracted me from the other issues at play here. I get the parallel and the application of the title of the movie but at times it felt almost too overpowering as a part of the narrative. I lost interest in that aspect of the story – by the end I really didn’t care about Elle’s second film and what it might or might not say.
This paragraph might be considered ***SPOILERY***
The other issue I have is actually with the conclusion. I’m not sure how to put my feelings about the ending into words but I felt a bit manipulated by it…almost as if the book is David and I am Elle. Being led to believe one thing and then being shown the true face. It seemed a bit too convenient, in some ways, things resolved in a way in which I didn’t expect. I just don’t think the ending really worked for me personally. It feels almost like there was a fear of actually having the act play out the way it has been described.
End possible ***SPOILERS***
Nevertheless, still a powerful and evocative psychological thriller, delving deep into an issue that becomes more and more predominant every day in our society. Anna George is going to be an author to watch.
Book #121 of 2014
What Came Before is the 44th book read and reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014