You know how sometimes you read a book cover and think, “This is too bleak for me,” or “I don’t think I’ll be interested in this type of story,” and then the book ends up totally blowing your mind? The Woman Before Me by Ruth Dugdall is one such book.
It’s defined as a crime novel but The Woman Before Me unfolds more like a psychological thriller. The story centers around Rose Wilks, a plain looking woman with a neglected childhood who, after losing her own child, is convicted for burning down a house that killed the baby of her beautiful best friend, Emma Hatcher. Four years pass and Rose, who has maintained her innocence, is up for parole. Enter Cate Austin, a young probation officer assigned to write a recommendation.
The book is essentially split into two inter-meshing parts: you have Cate in the present, told through third person narrative, investigating Rose’s life and the events that led up to the tragic night in question; and you have Rose’s “Black Book” entries, a first person confessional diary of sorts to her partner Jason which gradually peels away the layers wrapped around the novel’s core mystery — did Rose kill Emma’s baby, and if so, why?
While the book is subtitled “A Cate Austin novel” (as she is the common link in a planned series of books by Dugdall), The Woman Before Me is dominated by Wilks’s diary, which takes up more than half of its 282 pages. And just as well, because although Cate is quite an interesting character herself, Rose is simply mesmerising. She’s creepy and clearly unhinged but somehow I found myself unable to despise her. She is a tragic character driven by the two most unhealthy kinds of love — obsessive and unrequited. Her heartbreak comes across as painfully real.
It’s an uncomfortable book to read at times — any book about infant mortality is — but I found it to be a compulsive page-turner, which got more and more unputdownable as it neared its shocking climax. It’s a strange feeling being compelled to keep reading a book that is, if not quite depressing, often upsetting to get through. I suppose it’s a tribute to Dugdall’s ability to create characters readers care about and invest in emotionally.
As Dugdall’s bio says, she was in the British criminal justice system for almost a decade as a probation officer, which lends an air of credibility to the prison environment she describes with so much detail and confidence. Everything and everyone from the cells, routines, prison rules and culture to the inmates and the wardens all felt authentic to me. And although this is not mentioned anywhere in the book, I discovered through some post-reading research that the novel is actually based on true events (chills).
My idea of crime novels has always been fast-paced action and clever detective work, but The Woman Before Me is all played out in the mind and through memories. The book has been described as a “slow burn”, which is usually a turn-off for me, but I found it to a deftly paced and rather brisk read, something you could easily get through in a single sitting.
My only complaints are Dugdall’s tendency to lessen the impact of some of her minor plot twists by foreshadowing them too early, and her over-reliance on coincidences and chance encounters, some of which stretched the bounds of believability to me.
On the whole, however, I found The Woman Before Me to be a fascinating expedition into the darker side of human nature — and an enjoyable (albeit somewhat depressing) read. I’m sure it will end up as one of the more memorable books I’ve read this year.
PS: It was also fascinating to read up a little about Dugdall and her journey to becoming a published writer. Once again, her story demonstrates that successful published authors rarely come out of thin air and are usually extremely dedicated writers who have been honing their craft for years, submitting writings, entering competitions and attending workshops for a very long time before securing a crucial breakthrough. In her case, the breakthrough came when she won the Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger with her The Woman Before Me manuscript back in 2005 (though the book was not published in the UK until 2010) — showing what a long and arduous process it all is. Makes me wish I had more time and determination to work on my fiction writing.