Jennifer Beard, Monica Cantwell, Heidi Paakkonen, Mallory Manning, Grace Millane … just some of the women’s names we in Aotearoa know because they died brutally at the hands of men. Their names are all most of us do know about these women – that and the circumstances of their deaths. Jacqueline Bublitz has framed Before you knew my name around this sad fact – and the fact that women develop “Self-preservation as a replacement for instinct”.
Alice Lee, for much of the novel named ‘Jane Doe’, narrates the novel: “But here I am, still unseen. Who killed Alice Lee? is not really a question about me, is it?” Alice arrived in New York from the Midwest, fleeing a controlling schoolteacher with whom she was having an affair. She had led a constantly changing life, her mother moving on from various abusive partners, until she made a decision that traumatised her 14-year-old daughter.
The wisdom her mother passed on to Alice was: “They never doubt we need them more than they need us.” She told Alice she was strong, that women were made of metal. But what does that mean for Alice? Especially given her mother’s final choice. It isn’t until after Alice’s death that she learns her mother’s full story. She observes a world where all women are at risk. Where they are confused about what will keep them safe. Compliance? Resistance? Alice did find someone in New York she could trust: Noah. Noah who told Alice about nebulae – “Stardust, then, is both the end and the beginning of things.”
Ruby arrived in New York on the same day as Alice. Ruby is the jogger, as in “Her body was found by a jogger”. Ruby’s life is irrevocably changed by finding Alice – another thing that isn’t explored by news articles, or TV crime dramas; the impact of finding the ruined body of another. Ruby is from Australia and fleeing a dead end but compelling relationship with a man soon to be married to someone else; “Ash remained the lump in her throat, the ache in her bones”. She feels out of place but occasionally “to be found odd in New York feels like a triumph”.
Alice tries to steer the investigation into her rape and murder towards vital clues but “they don’t teach you how to be out of the world any more than they teach you how to be in it”. She has an ally in Ruby, who becomes obsessed with finding out about ‘Jane Doe’. Ruby finds herself first focussing on what kind of man could do such awful things, but then she realises the more important question is “Who on earth was the girl he did those awful things to?”. Alice tries to be more in touch with Ruby but “When the dead speak back, we are seldom heard over the clamour of all that living going on”.
Ruby encounters creeps on online dating sites, she talks to Tom – “another man fascinated with dead girls for all the wrong reasons”, she realises she was so close to being the body she found rather than the jogger. She becomes hyper-vigilant to the dangers around her, she doesn’t know how to react to men who talk to her – “It is never just one life these men destroy”. Ruby seeks help. She goes to an unhelpful support group “a Jenga tower of misery just waiting to topple”. She finally finds the Death Club, a small group of people who have tired of the superficial gloss of most conversation and want to discuss the serious things.
Ruby initially takes solace from the Death Club. Lennie, who works in a mortuary, and who lives amidst the chaos of the shattered lives of those whose bodies she reconstructs. Sue, who still grieves over her daughter who died in a car crash. And Josh, who came close to death when he came off his bike. Even though “We think in years”, people lives are changed in much smaller measures of time. Lennie advises: “intensity, not time, is what connect us.” But Ruby still finds it hard to accept that she has found some trustworthy people.
Before you knew my name, tells well known stories with a different perspective. The perspective of women: “Do you know how aware we have to be? Girls like me. The man ahead who slows down, who disappears into doorways. The man close behind who walks too fast, his encroachment felt on your skin, creeping …” In one way Alice and Ruby are living clichés, arriving in New York naïve and hopeful: “To think Ruby and I both thought this was the adventure. We really had no idea.”
Although using common tropes, there is nothing clichéd about the writing of this novel. The narration is stark and distressing: “There was an I, and it was me. I was at the centre, looking out. Until someone decided to enter the space I had created for myself, take it over.” It is an exploration of how women navigate the minefield of life. It is a murder mystery, with clues and red herrings. The resolution is a testament to the strength of many women and the weakness of many men: “Men … betray their own secrets, because they so desperately want to stay at the centre of things.”
Before you knew my name is tragic but warm-hearted, and Alice and Ruby are wonderful characterisations. Alice wasn’t murdered because she should have behaved differently to keep herself safe. She was murdered because in our society men are dangerous. “I suppose I let my guard down. At the end. … It surprised me. The shock of how little you can mean to another person. How an entire world can be discarded so quickly. I was right to think I would never be safe, that I needed to be wary. But it still surprised me. At the end.” A superb debut novel.