Before You Knew My Name, Jacqueline Bublitz
In 2022 Jacqueline Bublitz's novel BEFORE YOU KNEW MY NAME won both the Best Novel and Best First Novel categories of the Ngaio Marsh awards. It was the first time this had occurred since the award was established in 2010, and there are some really good reasons for that.
There's also some reasons for the delay in posting this review, mostly because when something is this good, writing words about such excellent words is more than a bit daunting. It's taken a long while to decide whether or not I could say anything that was vaguely coherent, other than plead with as many people as possible to read this book. I'm going to cheat a bit though and quote one of the blurbs from the book cover - because it sums it up perfectly:
'This astonishing debut turns the traditional crime story on its head... Darkly funny, deeply insightful and completely heartbreaking.' Petronella McGovern, author of SIX MINUTES
The other blurb worth repeating is simple:
This is not just another novel about a dead girl
On the same day in New York City, two women arrived, each in their own way looking for a fresh start. On her eighteenth birthday, Alice Lee stepped off a bus from Wisconsin with $600 cash and a stolen camera. Thirty-six-year-old Ruby Jones flew in from Melbourne, a long way to travel to be more lonely than before. Four weeks later Ruby Jones finds the battered body of Alice Lee while jogging beside the Hudson River.
This novel takes the reader way beyond the standard fare of "victim" and "jogger who found the body" - this is the story of Alice Lee and Ruby Jones and it's powerful, moving and profound. There's a connection between these two characters that goes way beyond their initial "meeting". The story is narrated by Alice, who believes Ruby is the person who will solve the mystery of her life and death. Ruby on the other hand, is unable to let go without the ending she believes Alice deserves.
Bublitz has deliberately centred the story on Alice, a young woman who did not deserve to die at the hands of another. Someone who should never be defined in terms of who killed her and how she died. In the same way that Ruby isn't a "jogger who found the body", or that person who feels compelled to be a version of herself that her lover wants her to be.
The message within BEFORE YOU KNEW MY NAME is very much that of women's experience - of the men around them, of the reduction that happens by deliberate coercion, or involuntary submission, and in particular the manner in which female victims of violence are ranked as "worthy" or "tragic". A continuation of the "if only she hadn't (worn those shoes / walked home / breathed / glanced at that stranger) ... " argument. The argument so infuriating, reductive, and lazy it will trigger an aneurysm in this reader one day.
BEFORE YOU KNEW MY NAME, on the other hand, was none of those things. It's the emotional, powerful, moving, insightful and eloquent story of a crime, and the affect that it had on Alice Lee and Ruby Jones.
This is not just another novel about a dead girl.
When she arrived in New York on her 18th birthday carrying nothing but $600 cash and a stolen camera, Alice Lee was looking for a fresh start. Now, just one month later, she is the city's latest Jane Doe, an unidentified murder victim.
Ruby Jones is also trying to start over; she travelled halfway around the world only to find herself lonelier than ever. Until she finds Alice's body by the Hudson River.
From this first, devastating encounter, the two women form an unbreakable bond. Alice is sure that Ruby is the key to solving the mystery of her life - and death. And Ruby - struggling to forget what she saw that morning - finds herself unable to let Alice go. Not until she is given the ending she deserves.
Before You Knew My Name doesn't ask whodunnit. Instead, this powerful, hopeful novel asks: Who was she? And what did she leave behind? The answers might surprise you.
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