The Woman Before Me, by Ruth Dugdall

Dugdall This novel is an extremely addictive debut, which deservedly won the CWA debut dagger this year. The publisher very kindly contacted me to offer a copy, and though books about babies in danger are definitely not my cup of tea, I accepted the generous offer — and I am glad I did. 

The novel is a real page-turner, being mainly the story of Rose, a woman who is on trial for setting a house on fire with a baby and his mother inside it. The novel explores Rose’s past via her diary, exposing a history of neglect by her parents and parent-figures for a variety of reasons. As a young adult, Rose ends up working in various menial jobs in a seaside hotel, where she meets Jason, the barman, and falls for him. She and Jason begin to live together, fulfilling Rose’s fantasy of a happy relationship. The reality, though, is that Jason is still in love with his young ex-wife Emma, and isn’t that interested in Rose. The author builds up the suspense within this eternal triangle, and cleverly portrays emotions and events spiralling out of control.

The contemporary part of the novel centres around Cate, a newly qualified prison probation officer. She has to decide whether or not Rose deserves parole when her case comes up in the next few weeks. Cate has a tough time of it, partly as a newly-single parent whose young daughter Amelia is in child care while her mother works, and partly because of the prison culture, which consists of (mainly) deeply sexist, lazy and overweight men (there is one butch female guard), together with devious prisoners who are pretty good at playing the system and hoodwinking their keepers. 

There is plenty of suspense and melodrama in this novel; even though the main plot twist is very easy to anticipate, it is delivered with high impact. I won’t say more in my review as I do not want to provide any spoilers, but the subsidiary twist is not convincing to me, given what we know of the principal characters. 

As a debut novel, this is a remarkably assured and well-written book. It only takes an hour or two to read, and is well-worth the effort. The book is not without its flaws, unfortunately, and at several points during Rose’s back-story I was hardly able to suspend my disbelief even while my emotions were engaged in her sad yet creepy tale. The other story, about Cate, peters out towards the end which is quite disappointing, as the prison scenes, from the perspectives of the inmates and the administration, are perhaps the strongest part of the book (the author worked in the probation service), and Cate is an intriguing character. The novel is clearly by a very talented author, and despite the occasional lapses from believability, it is certainly a novel well worth reading as an exploration of the nastier aspects of human nature and the bleaker end of the genre.

Review first posted at Petrona, September 2010.

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This entry was posted in Award winner, Books, Crime fiction, Debut, Domestic, England, Europe, Legal, Psychology, Social comment. Bookmark the permalink.

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