“To sleep on? Or to wake? This was the question facing me. To sleep, or to wake and face the reckoning, to find out what had been lost.”
Although by no means an incompetent debut Before the Ruins does not offer a particularly innovative take on this subgenre (usually we have big houses, a group of friends, something bad happens, years later something happens that makes our protagonist look back to this period of their life). The blurb for Before the Ruins does no favors to the actual contents of the novel. The diamond necklace functions as a MacGuffin, the ‘Game’ happens largely off the page, Andy’s “destructive behavior” does not seem all that destructive, and David is by no means ‘magnetic’. Maybe if I had not read any novels by Barbara Vine I would have been able to enjoy this more but while I was reading it I found myself more than once wishing I was reading Vine instead.
Before the Ruins is narrated by Andy who is her late thirties and works/lives in London. When the mother of her childhood best friend Peter calls her asking about his whereabouts Andy finds herself thinking back to that ‘fateful’ time in her life, when she was eighteen or so and alongisde Peter, and Marcus, Andy’s boyfriend, sneaked into ‘the manor’. Here they play ‘the game’, looking for a diamond necklace reputed to have been lost decades before. The arrival of David changes their group dynamics as both Andy and Peter fall for him. I thought that this would be the focus of the novel but in reality it is not. There two or three scenes depicting this ‘mythical summer’ and soon the focus of the story switches to the present day. We still get a few chapters relating past events, but these are fairly summative in nature.
Which brings me to my biggest criticism towards Before the Ruins : too much telling, not enough showing. Andy gives us recaps of these supposedly pivotal moments of her life. We do not see enough interactions between the members of the group, I wanted more of Peter and David, or at least more of Em and Andy. But what we get is a lot of pages emphasising that Andy was the ‘wild one’ from a difficult home, while everyone else seemed to have wonderful home environments. While Andy concedes that being gay in a small village in the 1990s was not easy for Peter the narrative will often stress Andy’s struggles. Em was portrayed as almost opposite to Andy’s tough-girl personality: she is ‘elfin’, an artist, more feminine, less in your face. Marcus was also painfully one-dimensional, as the not-so-nice-nice-guy. Peter…I really wanted to read more about it. But when Andy revisits the past she often skims over their time together, making their relationship seem not all that complex. He reminded me of other characters from this group of friends/something bad happens’ genre so I found myself almost superimposing my memory of those characters over him.
The setting of Marlborough was familiar to me, so I could easily envision the places that Andy was discussing but for readers who have never been to Marlborough or other villages in Wiltshire, well, they may find that the setting is at times a bit generic ‘countryside’. There are too few descriptions of Andy and her surroundings, especially once we get to the present. And, I would have loved to have more detailed descriptions of the manor (we get some at the start but I would have liked some more…I don’t expect Vine levels of architectural details but…).
Still, I did eventually warm up to the characters and story in the latter half of the novel. There are some beautiful and insightful observations about accountability, trauma, love, and grief. While the revelations towards the end did not come as surprise that is largely due to the fact that I have come across a lot of books that tread similar grounds (most of Vine’s novel, The Truants, The Secret History, The Lessons, If We Were Villains, The Likeness, The Sisters Mortland, Tell Me Everything….).
It frustrated me that Gosling either kept the most interesting encounters or exchanges off-page or simply rushed them. Expanding that ‘mythical summer’ would have given the overall story more tension (we could have seen with more clarity how David’s presence disrupted the group’s established dynamics). The story about the missing diamonds is delivered in a somewhat clumsy way, and I wish that the whole ‘game’ had been depicted in a different way. The novel is still engaging and suspenseful but I was often aware of where the story would go next.
Nevertheless, for all my criticism, I recognize that Gosling can write well, and even if Andy was not my kind of protagonist, I appreciated her character arc. Gosling is talented, of this there is no doubt, but I do wish that she had written a more original story.
my rating: ★★★¼
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