[This post is the second in an eight-part series of Book Reviews of books by some of our 2017 Midwest Writers faculty. The MWW interns wrote the reviews as one of their assignments for the Ball State University class “Literary Citizenship in a Digital Age,” taught by MWW Director Jama Kehoe Bigger.]
Glued. That’s the word I think of when I think about Rena Olsen’s The Girl Before. My eyes were glued to the pages – even after my head started to hurt from reading for so long. It’s everything all at once. Riveting. Troubling. Fascinating. Suspenseful. I found myself ready to turn to the next page as soon as I had started one – something that I’ve been lacking in novel reading for a while.
Olsen’s novel centers around a young woman named Clara who’s life is turned upside down when men in suits come into her house, separate her from her husband and daughters, and call her by the name “Diana” – a name she doesn’t recognize. She watches her husband get dragged away as he shouts at her, “Say nothing, baby, okay?” and “I love you, baby! Remember that!” As she waits in alone in a small room, she struggles between saying nothing and wanting to spill everything. She knows she’s done nothing wrong, but how will these people understand? Questions run circles in her brain. Will she see her husband again? Will she see her daughters again? As Olsen moves back and forth from past and present, readers slowly start to learn about who Clara is and where she comes from. At times the reader begs the question, is Clara the victim or villain?
The Girl Before moves back and forth with a Now and Then storyline, and it is written in first person. Allowing readers to slowly piece together Clara’s story, and better understand her decisions and experiences. Clara has been so sheltered that many times readers know more than she does about her own upbringing, and sometimes you don’t know whether to feel sympathetic or angry that she’s so naïve.
This book covers some disturbing content, making it all the more intriguing to read. The story focuses heavily on dialogue and the weight of verbal and non-verbal communication dynamics between characters. Much of the story is told through nonverbal expressions, and the way people say things to each other.
The only thing I had trouble with was how quickly the novel came to a conclusion. It felt rushed, considering what Clara had to go through. While reading, I had trouble believing certain scenarios and how they were resolved. However, after discovering that Olsen has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, it made sense how she was able to tap into the complexity of Clara’s thought processes so clearly – and I wouldn’t have been able to understand her decisions, and the decisions of other characters without this. This novel is so many things all at once, and it’s going to stick with you.
If you want to be enthralled by a story, pick this one up.