Book Review: Before You Knew My Name by Jacqueline Bublitz
Alice Lee is eighteen years-old when she takes off from her small Wisconsin town, drawn like a moth to the bright lights of New York City. With only six hundred dollars and a vintage Leica camera to her name, she has no idea what she wants to do with her life, only that she wants to live it to the fullest. She learned as a child that the average lifespan for an American woman in the early 21st century is 79.1 years, and she’s determined to seize every moment of hers.
So it’s a shock to her when she’s murdered, far short of her promised allotment.
In death, she meditates on what she learned in her short life. It is easier, in death, for her to feel wounded by the lack of care and attention she received from the people who were supposed to be her friends. It’s also easier to explore what she really feels about the man she ran away from in the Midwest:
My mother, I think, might have warned me about him. Might have told me how all these terrible men said she was beautiful, too. Or perhaps she might have pushed me right into [his] arms, considered this her validation. I am beautiful, just like her. And just like her, I have something this man wants to capture, possess.
Alas, her mother died too young as well, leaving Alice adrift at only fourteen. Now Alice is at risk of drifting off forever, but for the rage and sadness that keep her anchored to the mortal plane.
Alice is surprised to find that another emotion also keeps her tethered to the earth, as she discovers a kindred spirit in the jogger who initially comes across her body and reports it to the police. Australian Ruby Jones came to New York City at the same time Alice did, escaping a man of her own. In Ruby’s case, her lover is engaged to be married, and the only way she can think of to finally rid herself of their attachment is to fly halfway around the world in an effort to put physical distance between them. In the age of the Internet and digital communications however, connections are not so easily severed. Ruby is in an emotional funk even before she stumbles across Alice’s corpse while jogging in Riverside Park one morning.
The experience is traumatic for Ruby, who can’t help but feel responsible for the Jane Doe she’s found. Ruby knows that there isn’t anything she could have done to save the dead girl, but the memory of the brutalized corpse, stripped of almost everything save a purple t-shirt, gnaws at her. While attempting to process her trauma, she begins to make friends with online amateur sleuths and with people who’ve had difficult experiences with death themselves, unaware that her efforts are being urged on by a ghostly Alice. Will they be able to join forces to identify Alice’s body and bring her killer to justice, or will a murderer claim yet another victim as Ruby gets closer and closer to the truth?
Before You Knew My Name has strong The Lovely Bones vibes, updated for a big city in the Me-Too era, but with fewer fanciful imaginings of the afterlife. Alice is a very sympathetic narrator, a young girl whose life is ended far too soon, and who’s had to endure far more than any teenager ever should. I was also very taken with her complicated relationship with Noah (which eventually made me cry!)
Above all, I loved how this novel was a love letter to New York City, seen from the eyes of recent transplants:
I mean, can you imagine? That a place can feel like a person? That a place can comfort you and sing to you and surprise you. A place where simply stepping up out of the subway onto the street can give you that fizzing-under-the-skin sensation you get right before you kiss someone? When I told Noah about this, when I said it was almost as if I had fallen in love with New York, he smiled funny, and called me <I>Baby Joan</i>, and I still don’t know what that means.
Having had a similar experience with the city, I can absolutely relate. I found Ruby a little harder to connect with, though I was very much fascinated by her friend Lennie and their shared determination to do right by the dead. If you’re looking for a more metaphysical take on crime and survivor’s guilt than is available in much of the crime fiction currently out there, this novel could be exactly what you need.