Lovers of Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster novel Gone Girl take note. What came before, the first novel by Melbourne writer, Anna George, is another dark, emotionally charged thriller that digs deep into a marriage to unravel the twisted story of a husband who murders his wife.
Published in June 2014, it took George a decade to write and she says the novel went through several incarnations. Trained as a lawyer, she drew on her previous knowledge and read many stories of women killed by their partners or exes.
Gone Girl and What came before both peel back the layers of a marriage to show us the rotting insides. Both books begin as fairytale romances. Within a few years of marriage, both quickly descend into hellish nightmares of seemingly no escape.
The story has two timelines. David’s timeline begins with his confession. “Tonight at 6:10, I killed my wife. This is my statement.” What does David do in the hours after murdering his wife? Then there is Elle’s timeline which has a supernatural element as Elle’s spirit or soul, is hovering over her lifeless body. In the hours after her murder she relives the story of her relationship with David, beginning in the past and working towards her own murder.
There are none of the strategic traps and elaborate plots as in Gone Girl to keep the audience guessing.
The reader is driven by the question of Why. Why does David kill Elle? Why does Elle stay with a man who is capable of such violence? In reliving the start of their relationship. Elle comes to realise how she became so diminished through emotional abuse.
The theme of limerance is woven into the story early. Elle explains it as a “heady, in-love state felt typically in the early days of a relationship, those all-consuming and intense feelings that inevitably pass.” Despite recognising its temporary state, limerance is one of the reasons that Elle holds on to the relationship far too long, perhaps in the hope that the feeling will return and David will again become the charismatic man she fell in love with. At times it felt difficult to believe that an intelligent, capable, independent person would stay with an emotional abuser, however the many tragic cases that George read as research for this novel indicate that despite the ubiquitousness of divorce, sadly, many people do stay with an abusive partner.
Well-written with elegant prose, What came before is a page-turner not for the faint hearted.