Contemporary Novels

BEFORE THE RUINS by Victoria Gosling

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.

Contemporary Novels

GIRL A by Abigail Dean

The trendy use of the word “girl” in the title, the ominous photo on the dust jacket, the drastic shifts in fictive time, the brutal cult at the center of the story–all these hallmarks signal a psychological suspense novel on the order of LONG BRIGHT RIVER or WE ARE ALL ALONE IN THE DARK. Instead, this harrowing and beautifully written narrative is about the cost of surviving devastating trauma.

Thanks to the aforementioned time shifts, we get the basics of the plot in the first few pages: seven siblings, a father slipping ever further into religious derangement, an acquiescent mother, the “House of Horrors” in which they lived. When the oldest daughter escapes and the crime scene is revealed, authorities make a half-hearted attempt to control the media frenzy by assigning the children code names in order of age: Girl A, B, and C; Boys A-D.

Girl A, once called Lex, is the first-person narrator, and after sketching the broad outlines of the story, she spends the rest of the novel coloring inside those lines. If suspense had been Dean’s goal, telling the events in chronological order would have done the trick. Instead she seems intent on more elusive psychological game.

Each of the seven children had a unique experience of captivity, and each was damaged in a different way. Dean shows us how each can perform competence and normalcy while hiding essential brokenness. It’s the mere glimpses we get of that brokenness that suggest its unimaginable depths.

This is an extraordinarily accomplished and intelligent first novel, and I’m eager to see where Dean goes from here.

Picture books


As a rule, I try not to review publications by my friends, but some cases demand an exception.

Mia Wolff is probably best known as the artist of BREAD & WINE, the graphic novel written by Samuel R. Delany. To me, she’s a painter of dream landscapes whose best work I find comparable to that of Max Ernst. She’s always had an affinity for water that recurs in her paintings, so I was excited when she told me she was working on a picture book with an aquatic theme.

ABOVE & BELOW: THE VOYAGES OF VIRGILIO (named for her son, Virgil) exceeded all my expectations. Narrated in rhyming verse and rendered in gorgeous calligraphy, the story takes the form of a fable. The hero sails away from the quotidian world of New York City and out into the open water where “the sea was strange.” A powerful storm carries him into a land of mythological creatures where, in true hero fashion, he “danced with the dead.” As dawn breaks, he escapes and makes his life-giving return to the known world.

In keeping with the title, many of the paintings contrast the world of air with the world of water, including my favorite, showing Virgilio swimming on the surface as a beautifully delineated whale seems to urge him on.

Celebrating strength and self-reliance, the book provides an adventure story for younger readers and a parable about confronting death for older ones. It’s a beautiful package that invites repeated visits.

UPDATE 16 Nov 2021: You can now preorder the book from Fantagraphics for an 18 Jan 2022 release.