A debut with a darkly thumping heart...
The Man Before Me is Ruth Dugdall’s debut novel introducing Cate Austin, a probation officer, who has been assigned her first in-prison case. This is an extremely unsettling insight into prison life from a unique and authentic viewpoint that is rarely considered; but it is also a story of a damaged woman caught up in a tangle of love, lust and need.
Rose Wilks’ character is carefully constructed, with key emotional events painstakingly revisited, regardless of how distasteful or uncomfortable they may be. From the distress and incomprehension of her mother’s psychological illness, rendering her bedridden and eventually tilts her to commit suicide; to the troublingly sexual preoccupation with her “replacement” mother - Dugdall lays bare the inner discord of a child struggling to make sense of a world that has been distorted beyond recognition. They are crucial to our understanding of the adult she becomes and either explain or excuse her actions. When finally, Rose is discarded by her father at the behest of the usurper, her craving of acceptance and affection escalates to such a point where in her desperation, she clings onto a man whose physical presence only highlights a naked absence of love and his fixation with his ex; a fixation that infects Rose herself with terrible consequences.
The narrative becomes a compulsion as Cate is given the unenviable task of assessing whether or not Rose Wilks is worthy of parole. Cate thinks she has Rose pegged: she’s an obsessive, delusional woman who killed a rival woman’s baby in a fit of jealousy. The ebb and flow of Rose’s past and present are effortlessly intertwined; never once allowing the reader to lose the thread, whilst stretching out our understanding of what makes a person capable of infanticide. Needless to say, The Man Before Me is a story that forces us to acknowledge that there are often more than two sides to every story.
A former probationary officer herself, it is disquieting to see the innards of our criminal justice system so closely scrutinised – not with judgment or condemnation mind you, but with a wry sense of defeatism. The Man Before Me is an intimate and bold debut and Dugdall writes with a conviction and assurance that makes us believe she has much, much more to give…
We interview C J Daugherty about Night School
- 10 January 2012