Book review: The Woman He Loved Before: Dorothy Koomson

In book on September 21, 2011 at 8:15 am

I’m very grateful to my friend Jade for introducing me to Dorothy Koomson’s novels three or so years ago. I devoured Marshmallows For Breakfast, My Best Friend’s Girl, The Cupid Effect and The Chocolate Run at high speed, loving the beautiful writing, the complex layers of the characters, the sensitively handled plots… and it’s hard to believe, but Koomson just gets better and better.

Goodnight, Beautiful remains to this day the most heart-breaking book I can remember reading – it’s certainly the only book that I’ve had to sit and cry for a full hour afterward, and been unable to summarise to anyone without welling up. And last year, The Ice Cream Girls explored new teritory, tackling a controversial topic, once again, one that I’d never really dwelled upon to make me sit back and think about the perception we have of authortity figures and boisterous teenagers. The thorough understanding, the careful layers of the plot that show the extent of the research, of the empathy that the author puts into her work, is eye-opening and jaw-dropping.

I’m not being helpful – I’m not telling you what the topics are, why some of the novels are so harrowing – I don’t want to ruin the reading for you, that’s why. Koomson’s been described as a new queen of chick-lit – but I think her novels go way beyond an enjoyable read. Parts are distressing, and all are thought-provoking, leaving you whizzing through the pages, anxious to find out what happens next, who did what, why they did that, if everything will be okay.

The Woman He Loved Before is the latest jewel in Koomson’s literary crown – one of those books that you close after reading the final sentence and sit and think ‘What if...’ What if I were LibbyWhat if I were Eve…Could I do that, would I be able to do that?

Libby is a very beautiful woman, with a husband she loves very much; Jack. Before he fell in love with Libby, Jack had been married to Eve, who had died. A car accident in the opening of the novel throws Libby’s life into sharp relief – everything she is, everything she thinks, is questioned. Police investigating the accident wonder how Jack’s second wife so narrowly escaped death, narrowly avoided ending up the same way as the first. And there are niggling memories, things that Libby can’t quite put her finger on, as she comes to terms with the effects of her accident, the scars it has left, and the damage it has caused to her relationship.

Recuperating at home, she comes across some personal possessions of Eve’s, revealing the life of the woman Jack loved before, and making her question everything she has been told, everything she’s ever thought and believed about her husband and his past.

The subject matter of the book makes grim reading at times – and it’s a credit to Koomson’s skills that it’s not easy to simply dismiss the plot as fiction. We know that this is a fictional novel, but we know that Koomson has lifted the lid on terrible things that happen to people that we tend not to dwell on, prefer not to think about. Like picking at a scab to expose the woud underneath, Koomson nudges away at the layers of Libby’s discovery and Eve’s secrets – it could have been left alone, but once it’s been started, however painful it is, it has to be finished.

I must’ve come up with eight theories as to what was going to happen at various points in the book. When one of those theories was correct, I gasped with horror; I’d hoped my imagination was running away with me.

Gripping and chilling, Koomson has explored an unpleasant, taboo world; the kind that we occasionally read in distressing newspaper reports and sleep a little less easily for.

This is a book that stays with you long after you reach The End, and one that presents a whole series of ‘What if’ questions about what you might be capable of under different circumstances. Luckily for most of us, it’s something we’ll never need to find out.


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