The Girl Before You

Written by Nicola Rayner

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes.

The Girl Before You
RRP: £7.99
Released: August 22, 2019

A book full of women; women focused on men, exploited by men. Their stories are told, sometimes in the first person, at others by the author. We join them at university in 1999 and end 17 years later but there is no orderly sequence. Initially the shifts in time and space are confusing until you realize that such digressions are used to illustrate a point and, far from holding up the plot, they carry it further.

In fact there isn’t much of a plot, only the disappearance of a girl called Ruth, who remains a shade in the background of a picture monopolized by four friends in their blundering attempts to find something, be it love, security, happiness or, hopefully, an amalgam, but all dependent on someone else.

There are the romantics, sisters Ruth and Naomi; there’s Alice, whose sights are set on a plump and charming old Etonian with exquisite courtesy and bestial inclinations, but whose family have a castle in Scotland; and there is Kat who, thwarted in love but promiscuous herself, finds time to observe  the others in their febrile sexual routines,  reminiscent of  nothing so much as a perpetual nightmare inspired by Edgar Alan Poe.

So, it’s all women, sex and booze, bravado, guilt and remorse; if a man’s voice is heard it’s to bluster until he’s exposed in malfeasance and then he’s most likely to ask what can women expect when they set out to snare, using themselves as bait? This is a manual in titillation; one finds oneself constantly deploring the perpetual binge drinking, the drugs, the strange beds and unknown men – the appalling waste.

Indeed, there is too much depravity, too much of what, in a crime novel, should have been background despite its relevance to the plot. For Ruth was a freshman at the university but, beautiful, red-haired and innocent, she was fair game for predators and no reader can be surprised when she leaves a party to go swimming and is never seen again. There are infrequent or alleged sightings of her over the ensuing years but these are generally discredited and side-lined in the face of the riotous progress of her contemporaries.

It’s not until seventeen years later that a slow crescendo builds to a climax with suspicions among her erstwhile friends that the sightings may have substance, that Ruth is alive but had her own reasons for disappearing. Alternatively, and more sinister yet, she has a doppelganger, and was murdered, her body carefully concealed.

Too late these women, now on the cusp of middle age, stricken with remorse and the need to see justice done, go in search of the truth, presenting us with a version of criminal investigation. The outcome is surprising.

Although The Girl Before You is flawed, that is merely a matter of construction and easily remedied. Basically, this is a thoughtful and stylish debut and if the author had an axe to grind, she’s succeeded and one can’t begrudge her. I look forward to her second book.

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