The women arrive in New York on the same day, both determined to change their lives in a city known for its new beginnings. Weeks later, one is dead and the other is in shock after discovering her brutalized body – and becomes obsessed with solving the murder.
Melbourne writer Jacqueline Bublitz’s debut novel, Before You Knew My Name, is essentially a detective story, but that label seems reductive here. The story is more complex than a thriller, crossing romance, philosophy, feminism, politics and inequality.
The story is told through the charming and naive gaze of Alice Lee, an 18-year-old from Wisconsin who struggles to forge a life after her mother’s suicide. Immersed in an unhappy romance, she flees to New York City, with just a stolen camera and a few hundred dollars to make a fresh start. But as the reader is informed from the first pages of the novel, Alice has only a few weeks to live.
Ruby, an Australian, also fled to New York, after an affair with an engaged colleague. On a stormy day, she was running along the Hudson River when she found the bloodied body half naked; Alice’s spirit attaches to Ruby and tells us the rest of the story.
It’s an ambitious start, one that aims to challenge the structure and conventions of the detective genre – and succeeds, with only minor compromises. While the first chapters, which focus on Alice’s past, are engaging, the character borders on sweet fantasy – until her death, when the tale changes: the ugliest details of her life begin to creep in. , showing cracks in its reliability.
Through it, Bublitz skillfully points out how societal power imbalances shape women’s lives. Despite her optimism, tenacity and dynamism, Alice is powerless in the face of the violence of a stranger; Ruby too, of the manipulation and lies of the men in her life. Men are not stereotypes either: there are good men, complicated men, inconsistent men and bad men. Bublitz explores what drives their violence by paying attention to its complexity – ranging from the manipulation of Alice by her former teacher, to the lies told by Ruby’s cheating lover, to the narcissism of the villain who ultimately connects them both.
The crime itself may be seen as the norm for the genre – rape and murder by a stranger in a park – but it is a strategic choice for Bublitz. This is the type of gender-based violence that plays out in the press, and its consequences in the novel are oddly true to reality: a media cycle characterized by ebbs and flows of attention. Ruby’s quest to solve Alice’s murder is a race against the clock for the public interest, before the funding and enthusiasm to find her murderer runs out.
Along with this tale, Ruby falls into a “death club”: a group of people who have each had contact with death and who are obsessed with questions of human mortality and purpose. Through their discussions – animated vividly as if you were a fly on the wall, listening – Bublitz unveils the vulnerability of human life and the fears that haunt so many of us.
The characters sometimes feel a little too elaborate: Alice is the victim of her father’s abandonment, her mother’s suicide, the sexual predation of a teacher and ultimately murder; his owner / benefactor in New York is an eccentric old man who lives in a plush apartment where he takes care of numerous dogs and lavishes gifts and money on Alice without ulterior motives. But the plot doesn’t seem incredible.
Instead, Bublitz invests us in the lives of these two women, which pushes the narrative forward with all the suspense and tension we expect from detective fiction – but with complex characters and themes that linger longer.
Before I know my name from Jacqueline Bublitz is now available through Allen & Unwin