As any reader of crime fiction knows, dead girls on page one are a dime a dozen. The formula has been tried and tested ad nauseam: a mutilated body is discovered in grisly fashion, forensic mysteries and inconsistencies follow, and then hundreds of pages are concerned with whodunnit.
Apologies to crime fiction purveyors and fans alike for the reductionist take, but hey, that’s formula for you.
On page one of Jacqueline Bublitz’s debut novel Before You Knew My Name, there’s a dead girl, but she won’t be left at the crime scene and she won’t be silenced by the usual routine. Alice Lee is dead, yes – she tells us so – but in this book the voice of the victim, rather than the identity of the perpetrator, is prioritised.
“I didn’t set out to write a crime novel,” says the New Zealand-born author, “So I wasn’t actually even trying to subvert anything by giving Alice the microphone. What I wanted to do was explore who this young woman was before she died, who she was before this terrible thing happened her, and to give her a voice that wasn’t only about the worst thing that happened to her.”
With the worst thing declared upfront, we don’t have to worry about spoilers: Alice Lee is 18 and a recent arrival in New York, having fled her home state of Wisconsin after a sad and troubled childhood. No one is really looking out for Alice when her body is found by Ruby, a 36-year-old Australian woman who has left a job she doesn’t love and an unhealthy affair with a man she cannot have, to start afresh in New York. She’s on an early morning run by the Hudson River when her life intersects with Alice’s death, inextricably connecting these two women and forming a relationship between them that gives the novel its structure.
It is from this intersection that Bublitz’s narrative travels: forwards as we follow Ruby, lonely and time-rich, as she tries to find out who this young woman was; and backwards as Alice, recently dead but not yet properly dispatched, stays close to Ruby and shares the details of her life from beyond her death.
“When I was writing I read a newspaper headline that said, ‘If you want to kill your novel, have a dead narrator’, and so initially I was writing Alice in the past but her voice was just so strong and so compelling … and I thought, what if I just bring her into the present?”
It was a decision, political in a way, that reclaims power for the victim but also gives platform to Bublitz’s own feminist rage at gendered violence.
“I’m a capital F feminist and my friends say, ‘Oh yes, there you are on the page’, but hopefully not too much. I don’t want this book to be like a sign I am holding up at a rally.
“[Alice] allowed me to have this gentle rage come through about the kind of crime she experienced. Growing up I always knew the difference between the way I needed to navigate my safety and the way, say, my brother did or my male friends did … it was being aware – not from my own experience but certainly from my surroundings – of issues around domestic violence and what we now call gender-based violence … From a very young age, I was righteous and angry about injustice.
“I mean, pick and choose how many things you can get righteous and angry about when it comes to injustice, but gender-based violence was always the thorn that I’ve not been able to pick out.”
For all that freight, the book wears it lightly. The subject matter is heavy – rape, murder, questions of the afterlife – but Bublitz manages it with a deft hand. The voice of Alice, lively like an 18-year-old – slightly “pissed off”, as Bublitz puts it, to be dead so soon – and the presence of a group of New Yorkers called the Death Club, who Ruby meets with regularly, keep the narrative shot through with rays of light.
And a strange kind of comfort too. Fundamental to the book is a hope that there exists some sort of consciousness after death – or at least a suspension of disbelief, as Alice hovers over the story until the final pages. The Death Club – made up of warmly drawn characters who all live with some perpetual proximity to death (a mother who was with her daughter when she died in a car accident, an embalmer who cares deeply for her work, a young man who was brought back to life after a cycling accident) – also acts as a kind of Greek chorus standing around the central theme.
“My father passed away while I was writing the book, and soon after he died I went back and had a look [at my draft] and felt there was something missing. So I went back to the Death Club, and I thought about all the questions that I had. We’re talking very soon after Dad passed away, in the first three months, and I was with him all through his illness and through his death.
“I had so many questions and the only thing I wanted to do was talk to people who were asking the same questions. So the same sort of questions are being asked by the Death Club.
“Questions like: do you know when you die? Let alone what happens after … Death Club helps [Alice] process what happens to her. And I hope for readers, it might bring a little comfort to talk about some things we don’t normally talk about.”
Does Bublitz herself believe in some sort of consciousness after death?
“It’s something I think about a lot, but I would say I am happy not to know. Usually I am the kind of person who will dig as far as I can to get the answer to something. But whether there is consciousness after death – what if the answer is no? That would make me really sad. But if the answer is yes, that might change the way we live our lives.
“So perhaps it’s something we’re not meant to know, but I do believe that the dead are always with us, and each of has to learn by ourselves how we hold on to them … But do I have any firm ideas on what happens next? No.”
Before You Knew My Name by Jacqueline Bublitz is out now through Allen & Unwin