Sometime ago, a local author who worked in the local justice system, albeit in a different capacity to this author, wrote a debut novel which, at the time, read a lot like a spot of personal therapy. THE WOMAN BEFORE ME has a little of that feeling about it, but more importantly, and not just because it is inspired by a true event, it's a memorable and thought-provoking book into the bargain.
The blurb gives you the basics of the story. A baby has died, and there is only one suspect - a woman who befriended the dead child's mother in hospital, a woman whose own baby boy died. As the story progresses the reader learns more about Rose's circumstances, what happened to her before, during and after the birth and natural death of her own son; why she was close enough to Emma to be found guilty of the manslaughter of the dead boy - a child she had become uncomfortably close to.
But Rose is also now up for parole and she's always denied any responsibility for the death. The woman who now must decide Rose's immediate future, probation officer Cate Austin, is new to the prison system, with a child of her own, a failed marriage and breakdown behind her, a fragile, vulnerable person. Swirling around these two women there's a subtle power-play, a sense of menace, and a lot that's not quite as it seems.
The narrative moves backwards and forwards in time through the events leading up to Rose's pregnancy, the birth and death of the child and her present day life in jail. The viewpoint also shifts around mostly between Cate and Rose - which leaves the reader with the classic dilemma - is Rose an unreliable narrator? Is she responsible for baby Luke's death, is she a victim or a master manipulator? The character of Rose, in particular, is absolutely fascinating in this book. The reader is constantly struggling with who Rose really is. She could be a victim or she might just be guilty as charged? There's also the very real possibility that she's a master manipulator and somebody who is actually quite threatening. You are also constantly struck by the nature of happiness and how this woman seems to have made a life for herself within the jail system - how will she cope out in the real world again.
Obviously Dugdall is writing about a world that she knows very well - the depiction of jail culture is stark and very pointed. She's also writing about the circumstances of people that she knows well - how someone's past can affect their present, and how complex the problems of justice and punishment can be.
It's no surprise whatsoever that THE WOMAN BEFORE ME won the 2005 Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger in the UK, and it's very pleasing that it's finally made it to our shores. Hopefully there's more to come.