Before the Ruins
by Victoria Gosling
This title was previously available on NetGalley and is now archived.
Pub Date 06 May 2021 | Archive Date 05 May 2021
Serpent's Tail / Profile Books, Serpent's Tail
Average rating from 13 members
A good story about how the past reflects in our present. A sweet and intelligent story. Really enjoyed this. Scary at parts too! X
A stunning, absorbing debut novel. I was glued to this - couldn't put it down, and raced through it because I loved the characters and couldn't wait to find out what happened. Gosling gets atmosphere and characterization absolutely right. Can't wait to start recommending this to people!
Memory is a house, a castle with many rooms. Some of the rooms are deeper inside, honeycombed away. Each has a thousand keys – an image, a smell, a sound. Behind each door are a thousand other doors. Victoria Gosling’s debut novel Before the Ruins is based on a common literary trope – that of a narrator who revisits formative events experienced by a younger, less experienced self. In this case, the story is told by thirty-eight-year-old Andrea, known to her old friends as Andy, now working in London as a compliance officer for an investment fund. What triggers her exercise in retrospection is the sudden disappearance of Peter, a close childhood companion and the son of the vicar of the village where Andy grew up. This mystery evokes memories of the golden summer of 1996. In search of adventure after their final exams, Peter, her boyfriend Marcus and their friend Em had broken into a local abandoned manor and befriended David, a young man their age who was living there in hiding after an ill-advised card theft. Inspired by the story of the theft of a diamond necklace fifty years earlier and the subsequent sudden death of a potential suspect, the five play treasure hunts with a replica necklace, secretly hoping to find the real thing. A crumbling stately home, hidden jewels, nostalgic accounts of summer holidays… the novel’s initial chapters feel like a grown-up version of the Famous Five – not unlike "Secret Passages in a Hillside Town" by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, without the latter’s crazy weirdness. However, this description doesn’t really do justice to what turns out to be a narratively complex work. The novels juggles three timelines – the present, 1996 (with an ‘epilogue’ which happens three years later) and, to a lesser extent, 1936. I read somewhere that the book’s working title was The Mysteries. Before the Ruins sounds more poetic, with its punning play on the meaning of “before”, simultaneously suggesting an account of what led to the narrator’s “apocalypse” (i.e. before as “prior”) and a spectator surveying the results of a tragic collapse (i.e. before as “in front of”). Yet, “The Mysteries” goes straight to the heart of the novel. Because this is indeed a book based on mysteries – not just the location of the missing jewels (harkening to the plots of Enid Blyton and classic “cozy” detective novels) but also, and more importantly, the secrets which the characters, despite being close friends, are constantly hiding; the lies they tell each other and, sometimes, themselves; the domestic tragedies and abuse lived in silence between four walls. In a meta-twist, the novel becomes at once a mystery novel and a novel about mysteries. Significantly, towards the end, after watching an episode of a detective novel on TV, Andrea ruminates about how different the programme was from life. How life was full of mysteries that would not be solved, not ever, while we lived. But that each of us would play the detective nonetheless, and the life and death we would investigate, whether we knew it or not, was our own, and the thing was not to become deadened to them, to the mysteries Admittedly, as the “mysteries” pile up, we as readers are increasingly expected to suspend our disbelief. Just like during an airing of The Midsomer Murders one starts to wonder whether the levels of intrigue in a Wiltshire village might not be statistically skewed… Frankly, I did not mind this at all. I could not care less about the improbability of certain plot twists and just read on, immersed and, more often than not, moved. What I liked best about Before the Ruins is how the novel’s several storylines are presented within the structure of a coming-of-age narrative, one whose aching nostalgia reminded me at times of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (referenced in the title of one of the final chapters). Perhaps it helped that, like the narrator, I also came of age in the nineties – and whilst I wasn’t dropping Es or carousing in abandoned manors in the English countryside, I still lovingly remember that decade. Or perhaps the novel touched deeper, speaking to the little boy curled up on a sofa reading The Famous Five.