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Life Before by Carmel Reilly

Lori Spyker, once sixteen-year-old Loren Green, has left that part of her life behind. She’s moved on, married to stable Jason, the type she never thought she would be interested in, and bringing up two children. But her husband doesn’t know her secrets. It’s easiest that way. For both of them.

Then, out of the blue, a police officer shows up at the house as she’s taking her kids to school, looking for the girl she once was and reminding her of all those years before. Her brother, Scott, has been injured in a hit-and-run and is in a coma in the hospital. The same Scott she hasn’t seen since he was eighteen and headed for jail. The brother her new family still know nothing about. Who is he? And what are the terrible things that happened to them to make Lori so desperate to forget?

There are a lot of surprises in Life Before. The story is told through the eyes of two women from different generations of the same family. While Lori comes to terms with her past in modern Melbourne in 2016, her mother Pam Green is just getting on with life and husband and children in Northam in 1993, trying out the new yoga class and doing the best she can to raise her kids. The suspense about what happened and how and why trickles out through the chapters, but the main event is saved almost to the end.

A bit slow to get started, Life Before feels almost documentary-style, in the sense it never feels like we get that deep into the characters’ heads, into their preoccupations and motivations. A kind of plot twist is handed to us on the very last page without being unpacked and explained. But it appeals because its characters are so very ordinary, so very normal. Parents raising teenagers will be able to relate to Pam’s thoughts and problems. Anyone who has experienced extreme loss might find in Lori’s behaviour something of their own attempts to pick up the pieces and move on, basically a survival mechanism. By the time I got to the middle of the book, I was hooked and had to stay up to finish it. There’s a bit of thriller, a bit of domestic drama, and a bit of crime fiction rolled into this book. I didn’t find it plausible that Lori, married with two kids, never told her husband the truth about her past, but overall the plot is well thought out and walks the right line between telling all and holding information back.

Carmel Reilly is a very experienced fiction and non-fiction writer. Although she now lives in Australia, she grew up in Cambridge, not far from Hamilton. Her previous titles have been aimed at children and young adults, and this is the first novel she has written for adults.

A light but captivating read for anyone who likes mystery and family drama.

Reviewer: Susannah Whaley

Allen & Unwin, RRP $32.99

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