Often us booklovers are drawn to compare notes on the kinds of characters we like with broadly speaking divisions, those characters we like, we’d be happy to have them as friends, and those that you actively dislike. I’ve, in my more contemplative moments wondered why I am so happy to read about unlikeable characters, and I’ve decided that the authors who create these to populate their books tend to have other dynamics going on that make the likeableness of the character a bonus rather than a hinderance.
In Before She Knew Him there are unlikeable characters and to make things even harder the author has created a world, like he has in his previous novels, that is unlikely to exist but just likely enough to make the fiction only too believable.
Hen (short for Henrietta) Mazur and her husband Lloyd have recently moved house to a small suburb in Boston. They love their new house, they’ve left behind what appears to have been a few bad memories and Hen is now following her artistic path as an illustrator in the new neighbourhood. Their neighbours Mira and Matthew invite them for a dinner party. Hen, who has suffered with her mental health isn’t keen but Lloyd wants them to get out and mix. So they go and in one of those weird coincidences that occur in real life as well as novels, Hen makes a connection between Matthew and a victim of a murder who lived close to them in their previous home. What are the chances?
The book then takes on what could be a farcical turn, but doesn’t quite. Hen convinced that Matthew is in fact hiding some huge dark secret does what anyone would do in such a situation. Yes, she chooses to stalk her neighbour, whilst of course keeping this a secret from her husband, who is likely to worry far too much that she needs to go back to the doctor and have her medication altered.
In between this we see things from Matthew’s point of view. The only thing he is hiding from his wife is the visits his brother Richard makes to the house when Mira is out of town working. Mira has to travel a great deal for her work and Richard visits in her absence because she actively dislikes him – not surprisingly as we read excerpts from his thoughts, I’m sure most readers would decide to put him on the ‘not a friend pile!’
So all in all, exactly what you’d expect from a book by Peter Swanson. A bunch of weird characters, some less likeable than others followed by a somewhat bizarre scenario which is all rescued by some brash actions putting various people in danger of being discovered, followed and perhaps, given this is crime fiction, killed! And it was brilliantly pulled off. I didn’t want to put the book down, so engaged was I with what in the hands of a lesser writer would easily have been thrown against the ‘don’t be ridiculous’ wall.
I’d like to thank the publishers Faber and Faber who allowed me to read the experience that Before She Knew Him which will be published on 5 March 2019.