WHAT CAME BEFORE
Author: Anna George
Michael Joseph RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
It can be hard to write a review of some books. What Came Before by Anna George was one of those books. Not because it’s a bad book (it’s not), but because I resented how it made me feel. At times I wanted to throw it on the floor and bury it under others, like an ostrich with its head in the sand, and yet … I was compelled to read on. So I did. I kept turning those pages and it took me out of my comfort zone, which leads to the question: When a book triggers painful memories, do you walk away from it or keep turning the pages?
It’s hard to understand how the first flush of love, the butterflies and the passion, can disintegrate into indifference, dislike, or worse. Psychologist Dorothy Tennov coined the term “limerance” in 1979 to describe an experience often mistaken for love: “an involuntary interpersonal state that involves an acute longing for emotional reciprocation, obsessive-compulsive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and emotional dependence on another person.” It’s not love, rather an unhealthy state that’s hard to distinguish from love (read more about this in David Sack’s article “Limerance and the Biochemical Roots of Love Addiction”). Limerance is part of what Anna George explores in What Came Before, via the intense, passionate relationship between David and Elle (and also through Elle’s screenplay, aptly titled Limerance). Readers know from the outset that solicitor David has killed his wife, and as the novel draws readers in, learn how the relationship developed (or degenerated) to this point.
What Came Before is also a startling exploration of domestic violence, tapping into a subject that makes most readers uncomfortable. Until relatively recently, it’s been a taboo subject, and even now, as awareness is raised, it’s often misunderstood. In reality, it tends to bring out judgement (why does she stay?) from onlookers well before practical and emotional help (such as safety plans, useful phone numbers, support groups and so on). George examines the cycle of domestic violence, as well as the risks, judgement, implications, and consequences. Much of the violence perpetrated by David was of the insidious, emotional kind – wearing away Elle’s self-confidence, rejecting and punishing her by withholding himself or ignoring her, and so on; physical violence also occurred sporadically as things built up. It’s important to note here that emotional violence is scarring, just on the inside.
I believe it’s vital to keep this issue under the spotlight and I applaud George for doing so. It is a confronting issue, there’s no doubt about that. It’s also an issue that could trigger discomfort or pain in some readers. Which brings me back to the question I asked earlier: When a book triggers painful memories, do you walk away from it or keep turning the pages? I think the answer depends on where the reader is in their journey. After taking a breather, I was able to come back and see how George tackled the issue and now, a few days later, I think it was done admirably well. I would recommend readers who might be triggered by the subject matter to consider how much they will be affected, before diving in; for everyone else, it’s a dark, complex narrative with a profound message that needs to be heard.
If you are experiencing emotional abuse, or any kind of domestic violence, it is really important that you seek help. There are lots of services available to help – those in Australia can find out more about them here.
Available from good bookstores and Penguin Books Australia. My copy was courtesy of Penguin Books Australia.