Clara Lawson is torn from her life in an instant. Without warning, her home is invaded by armed men, and she finds herself separated from her beloved husband and daughters. The last thing her husband yells to her is to say nothing.
In chapters that alternate between past and present, the novel slowly unpeels the layers of Clara’s fractured life. We see her growing up, raised with her sisters by the stern Mama and Papa G, becoming a poised and educated young woman, falling desperately in love with the forbidden son of her adoptive parents. We see her now, sequestered in an institution, questioned by men and women who call her a different name—Diana—and who accuse her husband of unspeakable crimes. As recollections of her past collide with new revelations, Clara must question everything she thought she knew, to come to terms with the truth of her history and to summon the strength to navigate her future.
The Girl Before by Rena Olsen
Publication Date: August 11, 2016 by Putnam Books
There are aspects of this book that really affected me and were clearly done well, but there were also details that kept me from becoming fully immersed in the story, hence a middle of the road, three star rating.
Rena Olsen tackles very tough (and also very real) issues in The Girl Before and she does a phenomenal job doing just that. Knowing that she works as a social worker, I’m sure her career lent to her ability to write a book involving human trafficking and abuse (physical AND emotional) that rang very true and frighteningly believable. I admire her ability to be able to depict what it’s really like for someone to experience such horrific experiences without coming off as patronizing and without glorifying these issues either.
While it took some getting used to, the alternating chapters between “Now” and “Then” helped to build a better understanding of Clara’s past and give a clear picture as to how Clara could become so brainwashed by the age of 23. Olsen makes it clear that while Clara has committed some pretty horrible actions (both by doing and by ignoring), she is still a victim and survivor herself. As an outsider reading her narration, it’s easy to see the wrongness in everything Clara is involved in, but remembering how Clara came to be a part of the trafficking organization is important in realizing that it’s not as easy as blaming her for what has happened.
Although the formatting and the subject matter should have been enough to hook me in, I didn’t find myself becoming completely absorbed in the story. While the characters are far from being one-dimensional, and while it’s easy to see how trauma could impact Clara in a way that would keep her from having a believable 23-year old’s voice, I did find myself frustrated with her narration.
Far from victim-blaming, her feelings and thoughts about Glen made sense and her concern for her “daughters” felt real. My issue came more with how naive and somewhat willfully ignorant she turned out to be once the “Then” chapters began to paint a clearer picture of what was going on around her. And while her concern for people hating her for her role in her husband’s business seemed genuine, her ability to realize her situation and to move over to the side of understanding how wrong her whole life has been came on too quick for me for someone who felt she had been doing something “good” for years. While denial may be a powerful tool, her realizations felt slightly unrealistic to me considering how damaged her whole life has been.
Knowing this is Rena Olsen’s first novel, it’s clear she is a talented writer and I’m interested to see what she produces next. While I may have found a few faults with The Girl Before, Olsen does an amazing job of tackling some very heavy and very prevalent issues in our current society and for that, I applaud her.