If you read a lot of “psychological thrillers” you will recognize many of these elements: the damaged first-person narrator; the alcoholic and negligent mother; the abusive stepfather; the alternating narrative lines, one in the past, one in the present; the catastrophic event that is hinted at long before it’s revealed in the narrative (e.g. page 3: “‘…even after,’ she paused, ‘everything that happened.'”).
Debut novelist Victoria Gosling whips these familiar ingredients into something completely unexpected, rich, satisfying, and full of pain and truth.
Here’s as much plot as I’m willing to give away: Four friends in their late teens meet at an abandoned manor in rural England in the summer of 1996 to play games, most of them involving a diamond necklace supposedly hidden there. Andy, our damaged narrator, shows what past tense can do that present tense can’t, as her bitter, hilarious, powerful, and vulnerable voice filters everything we see and hear. Peter, always an outsider, is headed for Oxford. Andy’s boyfriend Marcus is destined for a career in his uncle’s construction business. Em, sweet and idealistic, follows where the others lead. When David–handsome, charming, dangerous–arrives, on the run from the law, the entire course of the summer changes. Meanwhile, twenty years on, Peter has disappeared and long-buried secrets are clamoring to get out.
The plot is riveting, and not in the teasing, deliberately-withheld-information sort of way you see in lesser thrillers. I felt like Andy was getting to all the bits of the story as quickly as she could–there’s just a lot to tell. Through pitch-perfect dialog, each of the characters comes vividly to life, and despite their lies, betrayals, and stoned and drunken carelessness, I loved them all. Andy’s acute self-awareness is her most humanizing feature: “I knew I was playing an old game, threatening to do something dangerous in the hope that someone would stop me.” No one does. Instead, as Peter tells her late in the book, “I have resented you at times. Things came easy to you, Andy. People always liked you. Didn’t matter how rude or appalling you were.” That this is not how Andy saw herself is part of what makes the novel so vivid and so real–we are constantly seeing the characters from new angles.
You can’t open the book without finding a moment of brilliant writing, whether a snarky one-liner (“My mum had an eight-octave emotional range and more black keys than most”) or a moment of natural beauty (“A little starlight crept through the new leaves. I thought of dead stars, dead events, all their rage consumed millions of years ago, just a memory of fire reaching out across the universe…”). Rage is never far from Andy’s thoughts, and her slow coming to grips with it is one of the many threads that propelled me through the book.
In her low moments, Andy finds her rage everywhere, like when she binge-watches action films “for the explosions, the moments when the whole screen was a consuming, raging fire, and for the fight scenes, in which bad men were eventually overcome with maximum force. The fights were like beautiful dances rising toward climax, the body count swelling as Vin, or The Rock, Jason or Bruce, snapped and stabbed and choked, punching and ripping and slamming and gouging bad men toward unconsciousness or death, their faces flushed and contorted with the effort of it. The violence always justified. A wife murdered. A child held hostage. But the women and children merely ciphers, excuses for the violence unleashed.”
Nor is she the only one to suffer. Marcus feels trapped in his role as “white knight” and protector. Peter is tormented at Oxford for his sexuality and his middle-class origins. Em spends a lifetime in unrequited love. Yet none of them is defined by pain, and all of them are given complex emotional lives. There is no part for Vin Diesel in the movie of BEFORE THE RUINS. The violence that happens is sudden, unexpected, and takes place offstage.
I knew I had only skimmed the surface in my first reading, and as soon as I finished the book I turned back to page 1 and started again, savoring every line, all the way through, with even more pleasure than the first time. I have never done that with a book before, but it more than repaid the effort. In the very first paragraph, I saw that Gosling had quietly prepared the ground for a plot point we would not see explained for more than 200 pages. The odd way that Peter’s former schoolmate at Oxford teased him about “what he was capable of,” meaningless the first time, was chilling on rereading. A minor quibble I had about the diamond subplot turned out to be me in too much of a hurry the first time through.
I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. Donna Tartt’s SECRET HISTORY, Julia Heaberlin’s WE ARE ALL THE SAME IN THE DARK, and Abigail Dean’s GIRL A offer points of comparison, but BEFORE THE RUINS tops them all.