It's not often that a reader can hear from the victim after their untimely death, but that's the unique premise of What Came Before. The book opens with David Forrester, covered in blood, panicked and physically ill due to the act of violence he has just committed against his wife. The story then shifts to Elle, who is floating above her body, a disembodied presence watching her lifeless figure. Over the course of the novel, both David and Elle tell the story of their relationship, explaining what came before Elle's gruesome end.
It seemed oddly coincidental that I picked up a book on domestic violence in the same week that domestic violence advocate Rose Battie is recognised as Australian of the Year and the federal government cut funding to support services for victims of domestic violence. But it's not actually surprising: What Came Before adds to a growing body of work by Australian authors that looks at domestic violence and its often fatal impacts (including Lianne Moriarty's Big Little Lies, which I reviewed here). Elle was a successful lawyer who left the law and become a screenwriter and director. Her first feature film, Daisy, was a critical and commercial success and she is working on her second film, Limerance. Limerence (as described by Elle), is "a termed coined by psychologist Dorothy Tennov in the seventies to describe that heady, in-love state felt typically in the early days of a relationship, those all-consuming and intense feelings that inevitably pass." She first meets David at her going-away party from the law firm that he has just started at. He never forgot her, so when he sees her four years later at a Almodavor retrospective at the Sun Theatre, he immediately approaches her, they hit it off and she takes him to her home for what she plans to be her first one-night stand. David, however, has other plans.
This first night proves to be symptomatic of their entire relationship. Even after she clearly tells him she doesn't want to see him anymore, David entices and manipulates Elle into beginning a relationship with him. Each time she pulls away, he finds ways to get what he wants until their relationship is dominating heir life. As the book continues, the violence escalates in a subtle yet dreadful way, until it almost hard to read. This is a broken, twisted relationship, and having both protagonists telling their story adds to its emotional power.
What Came Before is Anna George's first novel, and her lack of novel-writing experience is clear. At times, the prose seems somewhat overworked and the word "Seddon" is used an awful lot of times (I get, it, you're in Seddon. The location says stuff about the characters. Enough with the Seddon references.). I also thought some of the metaphors were a bit heavy handed, like the Seddon/character one and the vagina as relationship barometer. That said, these are minor quibbles for a book I read in one sitting. I look forward to Anna George's next novel - four stars.