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Jacqueline Bublitz’s novel “Before You Knew My Name” is the harrowing tale of two wayward young women navigating personal struggles, difficult relationships, and new lives in New York City. The first woman, Alice Lee turns 18 and leaves behind a quiet, broken life in Wisconsin in favor of a fresh new start in the big city with only $600, a stolen camera, and the address of a room for rent. Next, Ruby Jones is a woman in her mid-thirties who has been strung along by an engaged man for too long, so she upends her old life in Australia and blazes a new trail for herself in New York. Unbeknownst to the two protagonists, they arrive in New York on the same stormy day and meet when Ruby finds Alice facedown by the water in Riverside Park, murdered. A fun read with a unique twist on a true crime-like story, this novel ultimately spreads itself too thin with an ever-growing cast of ensemble characters.
The novel’s greatest success is the way in which it portrays how homicides affect those adjacent to the crime. Alice’s murder is a horrible act that shocks Manhattan, but only for a short time. The real trauma festers within the individuals who have to face those difficult memories every day. Ruby’s active choice to help unearth the life represented by the body she finds in the water that stormy morning ultimately allows her to discover who Alice is and what her life meant. The realization that a young life was unnecessarily snubbed leaves her in shock, propelling the story forward as she works to change the ways these violent crimes are viewed.
The story is told from the perspective of the spectral embodiment of Alice, who slowly informs the reader about the struggles of her life before New York. However, Alice’s ghostly interjections often come as a surprise to the reader. But because the most rich and vibrant storytelling happens not in the story’s present but in Alice’s reflections, Ruby’s day-to-day actions detract from the intrigue of the narrative. Bublitz enticingly teases hints of Alice’s past life before she indulges and shares her full story. As a result, Ruby’s seemingly incessant running to cope with finding Alice’s body redirects attention away from unearthing Alice’s mysterious past in Wisconsin.
Ultimately, Bublitz’s novel intentionally shifts the narrative surrounding cold-blooded murders away from the perpetrator to the victim. By telling the story from the perspective of the two women caught up in this violent act, Bublitz strips the power away from the murderer. In “Before You Knew My Name,” Alice is found with no identification and no connections to the city. She is just one more Jane Doe in need of help from overburdened homicide units. The victims of these crimes are far too often perceived simply as nameless bodies rather than people with rich lives stolen from them, but Ruby insists on maintaining Alice’s humanity while solving the mystery behind her disappearance. This purposeful emboldening of the victim provides a powerful piece of commentary on the increasing popularity of the true crime genre.
At its core, “Before You Knew My Name” is an entertaining and enjoyable read, but during the middle of the story, it loses a bit of its charm as Bublitz struggles to flesh out its side characters. One of the most mysterious and exciting characters is the man Alice rents her room from in New York, yet there is very little divulged about what makes him interesting. Similarly, Ruby opportunely meets a rag-tag gang of friends who have struggled with grief themselves, but these characters don’t evolve.
The only character arc that provides a meaningful, cathartic end is Ruby’s. But while Bublitz does such a wonderful job introducing so many rich characters, it’s simply not enough to have them reduced to one-dimensional individuals. Without evolving themselves, they can only propel the story so far.
—Staff writer Mikel J. Davies can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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