A book cover bursting with blowsy roses and peonies
Before You Knew My Name, the debut novel by Jacqueline Bublitz (Design: Tina Tiller)

A review of radical, deeply feminist crime novel Before You Knew My Name

In her first book, New Plymouth writer Jacqueline Bublitz chooses to focus not on whodunnit, but on who the victim was. 

I am afraid of being murdered. If I was a more superstitious person, I would fear that writing and publishing that statement would cause a local murderer reading this to find me and murder me. I know that the person most likely to murder me is the person I sleep next to, spend most of my time with, and trust implicitly not to poison my morning coffee. Yet I, like many or most or all women, am terribly afraid of being murdered by a stranger.

Jacqueline Bublitz deftly explores this anxiety and the regular all-American occurrence of just another dead girl. The reading experience is similar to Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel The Lovely Bones in that there is no spoiling that the main character is dead – she tells you on page one. But this time, life before death, and the ripples that a single death can have in the lives of others, is the pulsing nervous system of this riveting, disquieting story.

It is such a simple idea, yet this novel is a radical, and long-overdue, commentary on the entire dead girl genre, as well as the true crime culture boom – Making A Murderer, Serial, Morbid, Last Podcast on The Left, etcetera etcetera – of the last half decade or so.

It’s heavy stuff, I won’t lie to you. It’s the second half of that famous Margaret Atwood quote, where men are afraid women will laugh at them, and women are afraid men will kill them. 

The book comes together around a central act of violence – Alice’s murder. But crucially, we are introduced to our dead girl not via the thing that happens to her but rather the person she is. Young, bereft, yet full of the energy of an 18-year-old, Alice is running away from a life of mundane deprivation, towards a more perfect isolation in the bustle of New York City.

Alice has a fear of men that is most potent in her processing of a relationship with a sexy yet lecherous teacher. He gives her butterflies in her stomach; she can’t seem to figure out if those butterflies signal pleasure or a desire to run.

Meanwhile Ruby, an Australian woman twice Alice’s age, embarks on her own escape to New York, fleeing the false promises and swirling regrets of a love affair doomed to go nowhere.

There are obvious parallels in these women’s experiences – love, loneliness, and the city – that are compounded by the tragic circumstances that bring them together. Those parallels also highlight the randomness that’s in play, the messed-up coincidence, when one of them is murdered, and the other finds the body.

The world ends for Alice in the rain of an early New York morning. A new world begins for Ruby in the horror of Alice’s murder. She joins a “Death Club”, whose members have their “noses pressed up against death … Maybe if we got to know it a bit better, tried to understand it, we might find a way to break through the glass that separates life from death.” I would like to join their club.

These survivors of the morbid and the miserable meet to enjoy the finest food and drink that the city has to offer, while asking each other the questions at the bottom of grief and recovery. Do the dead know what is happening to them? Ruby wonders: did she know, that girl whose name is still a mystery, what was happening to her that day?

As Alice and Ruby are both licking the wounds of love gone wrong, we get glimpses of the adult that Alice could have become had she been allowed to live. The narrative structure allows Alice to take us on this journey through her life, her death, and the life of the woman fated to be Alice’s champion on this side of the void. The voice of Alice, flitting seamlessly between life and death, allows her and us moments of staggering insight into the consequences of connections to careless men.

I now know that you can cry, scream, howl like the wounded animal you are. And they do not stop. It does not move them. They keep going until there is nothing left, until you are broken apart, obliterated.

As a big fan of the true crime genre, and a connoisseur and critic of the vast swathes of podcasts and TV shows available to people like me, I am abundantly aware that a lot of people don’t understand why someone, a woman in particular, would expose herself to the sickening details of violent crimes. I usually tell people it’s an anxiety thing, that I’m a diligent researcher of the horrible things that some men are capable of. Because as Bublitz writes, “some men are constantly vigilant. Watching for the girls no one else will think to look for when they’re gone.” Forewarned is forearmed, you know. 

I agree with myself, yet I am also aware that I know the names of countless serial killers, can tell you details of their crimes – where and how and when they killed – yet the names of their victims are shadows that flit through the back alleys of my memory.

Bublitz, as challenge, points out that the name of a dead girl, once she is dead, is usually only useful insofar as it might help identify her killer, “the everyman behind each mystery, each sad, bad Jane Doe story”.

Novels about violent crime that are this deeply feminist and rooted in the humanity of victims rather than the glamour of evil men, are rare. Thoughtful, gripping, moving, and genre-disrupting novels like Before You Knew My Name, are rarer still. 

Before You Knew My Name, by Jacqueline Bublitz (Allen & Unwin, $32.99) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington




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