So opens Anna George’s debut novel, What Came Before. The story is narrated alternatively by David, Elle — his wife of less than two years — and Elle’s friend/producer/sister-in-law Mira. In the first glimpse we have of her,
“Elle Nolan is on her laundry’s cool tiles. She is also on the ceiling, where she’s feeling gloriously light, as if she is a balloon. Floating and hyper-alert, she is unafraid. And calm…
So this is death.” (p.16)
A subtitle poses the question, ‘How could love go so wrong?’ and the novel unfolds as an attempt to answer that burning question.
The issue of women being killed by their partners or exes is all too familiar, affecting people from all walks of life. According to a recent article by Hannah Piterman, “In Australia, a woman is murdered every week at the hands of her partner or ex.” The characters in What Came Before are strikingly upper middle class: Elle, an educated and financially independent woman, and Dave, a wealthy, deeply unhappy lawyer. As Dave puts it,
Lawyers could be split into three groups: the minority of believers who loved legal practice; the agnostic majority who stayed…because they didn’t know what else to do; and the lucky ones, the atheists, who left because they had another calling. (p.10)
Dave is part of the agnostic majority; Elle is an atheist, who has left the law to pursue a career as a filmmaker. Dave admires Elle for it and is threatened by her in equal measure. It only feeds his feelings of inadequacy when she encourages him to quit a job that makes him miserable in order to nurture his own artistic talents.
Elle has her reasons for being drawn to Dave. But his escalating emotional abuse erodes her self-confidence and skews her judgment, so that when the emotional abuse turns physical, Elle hesitates to leave. When she does manage to walk away, she allows herself to be talked into taking him back again and again.
The view of Elle and Dave’s relationship is so intimate, it would be almost too painful to watch, if not for George’s appealing prose. She richly evokes the Melbourne setting, contrasting the semi-industrial west where both Elle and Mira live, with the affluent bayside suburb of Brighton where David lives in a “too big and mostly empty” mansion.
References to infamous industrial accidents — the Westgate Bridge collapse, the Coote Island toxic chemical explosion — add to the menacing atmosphere surrounding Elle, allow the author to draw what is for me stunning comparison between Elle’s environment and her circumstances:
In the river’s brown mist she could make out the so-called island and its tank of horrors. The island rose out of the water like an indisputable truth… Studying the beautiful, desolate landscape, she felt the magnitude of the compromise inherent in it as if it had been her own. Quite simply, it was too volatile and too close, as David had been, for too long. (p.217)
There are also references throughout the novel to well-known cases of women killed by their husbands — the Julie Ramage case, for example — and to men who have killed their children in order to punish their ex-wives. This ensures that the narrative, though centering on one relationship, speaks to universal themes, anchoring fiction in tragic reality.
The ending contains a twist that didn’t really work for me; I’ll be curious to see what other reviewers make of it. And I found Elle somewhat like a character from one of her own romantic comedies at times, at times lacking depth.
All the same, What Came Before is a highly readable and important book, which I suspect will resonate for many readers. George herself says she wrote the novel in part to make sense of her own experience — an attempt to understand “how a financially independent and childless woman can be in a relationship with an emotionally abusive man; and not get out at the first sign of trouble.”
With What Came Before, Anna George join the ranks of Australian writers like Wendy James and Honey Brown, who lift a lid on the violence of everyday life, pioneering a type of ‘suburban noir’ that is absorbing, disturbing and all the more powerful for being utterly believable.
What Came Before by Anna George (2014) is published by Viking/Penguin Books.
This review has been submitted as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.