Book review: Before You Knew My Name by Jacqueline Bublitz

Thursday, May 13, 2021 Permalink

I apologise in advance for the superlatives but I do not know how else to adequately describe how much I loved this book. I’d requested it as it sounded interesting but had I been aware of the astounding beauty of Jacqueline Bublitz’s writing, and how compassionately and poignantly she unfurls Alice’s story I would have devoured it the moment it arrived.

I mentioned recently that books with dead narrators have become a little passé since Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones was published in 2002. We’re no longer shocked or horrified or even that uncomfortable to be in the head of the recently deceased. Here however Bublitz manages to bring something new via the voice of a teenage girl we meet and then lose far too early. She allows us to spend time with Alice before ripping her out of her world – and though we’re left with the sense of anger, frustration and sadness that everything has been taken from her as she’s on the cusp of happiness – we’re also comforted by her continued presence.

Book review: Before You Knew My Name by Jacqueline BublitzBefore You Knew My Name
by Jacqueline Bublitz
Published by Allen & Unwin
on 04/05/2021
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Literary Fiction, Thriller / Suspense
ISBN: 9781760878856
Pages: 336

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.

The book unfolds from two points of view. Both 18 year old Alice and 36 year old Ruby arrive in New York at the same time. We meet Alice first and her story plays out quite a bit before we meet Ruby who flies in from Australia to escape an affair with an almost-married man.

It’s Alice who’s central here. She’s feisty and very very disarming. I was less drawn to Ruby, at least not until she’s given a sense of purpose – the duty she feels to the body she finds – that she became of much interest to me.

Bublitz very cleverly keeps us guessing as to the perpetrator of Alice’s death. She’s careful with her phrasing and language so we know it could be anyone Alice has grown to know and trust over her short life. We learn of the teenager’s fraught past and – because we arrive in New York with her – there’s a feeling of relief when she finds herself being adopted (in a sense) in New York by an elderly man who seemingly wants nothing of her.

But because we also know it’s coming, there’s a sense of trepidation as we inch towards Alice’s death. And when it comes it’s a brutal blow. Bublitz glosses over it initially. She holds back the detail until we need to know because this book isn’t supposed to be about Alice’s death. It’s about the life Alice could have lived and the one Ruby still can. In fact we’re reminded that death is often as much about those who remain.

For the first time, I understand it’s not only the dead who have lives they don’t get to live out. The people left behind have as many versions of themselves unexplored, as many possible paths that close off. Some versions are better, and some, no doubt, are worse. p 216

This promo material for this book say it’s not about the whodunnit. In fact it isn’t even about the why. It’s not really about the perpetrator at all. It’s all about the victim. And I know that can be a disempowering word but here it’s apt. And her name was Alice.

The way Bublitz ekes out her story is stunning, but the beauty of this book is in Bublitz’s writing. It’s evocative and eloquent and quite often mind-blowing. I found myself just sitting with sentences. With phrases. It felt as if words weighed more than they should. They both burdened me and transported me – not just to New York and Alice and Ruby’s world – but to a place requiring something of me. (And I’m not sure yet what that is.)

Ruby Jones is my only witness. I understand this suddenly, explicitly, and I grasp at this singular certainty, feel my way along it, until I find myself standing next to her, there on the waterfront path. She couldn’t get to me, but somehow, some way, I make it to her. I am in awe as I reach out to Ruby, but my fingertips turn to rain, drip down her cheek, and a second truth claps itself above us:

She can only see the husk of me, left down on the rocks.

Turns out you have to learn how to see a dead girl. To recognise her. pp 124-125

I often think I would like to write but when I read prose like this I realise there’s no way I could contribute anything as worthy of being in print or transmitting across the ether for time evermore.

This novel could be depressing but it’s wistful. It could be self-indulgent but it asks something of us. I’m not yet sure what (however) and that’s both confronting and captivating.

This is brilliant and definitely one of my favourite books. Ever. (And added to the very short list of books I’ve given 5 stars!)

Before You Knew My Name by Jacqueline Bublitz was published in Australia by Allen and Unwin and is now available.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.


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