Andy believes that she has left her past far behind her. But when she gets a call from Peter’s mother to say he’s gone missing, she finds herself pulled into a search for answers.
Bored and restless after their final school exams, Andy, Peter, Em and Marcus broke into a ruined manor house nearby and quickly became friends with the boy living there. Blond, charming and on the run, David’s presence was as dangerous as it was exciting.
The story of a diamond necklace, stolen from the house fifty years earlier and perhaps still lost somewhere in the grounds inspired the group to buy a replica and play at hiding it, hoping to turn up the real thing along the way. But the game grew to encompass decades of resentment, lies and a terrible betrayal.
Now, Andy’s search for Peter will unearth unimaginable secrets – and take her back to the people who still keep them.
Comparisons to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Elizabeth Day’s The Party, and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child meant that Victoria Gosling’s debut Before the Ruins immediately caught my eye. Those are fairly big shoes to fill and, whilst for me Before the Ruins didn’t quite steal The Secret History‘s crown, fans of those novels are sure to find a huge amount to enjoy in this beguiling coming-of-age tale.
Switching between the present day and the summer of 1996, Before the Ruins follow Andy, a successful London professional whose stylish clothes, designer handbags, and high-flying city job belie the rural poverty of her childhood and the neglect and abuse received at the hands of an alcoholic mother and abusive ‘step-father’ (trigger warnings for substance abuse, physical abuse and domestic violence). Fortunately for Andy, she had Peter. Clever but awkward, Peter is almost the exact opposite of brash, brazen Andy. But the two are inseparable – much to the disappointment of Andy’s sometime boyfriend Marcus, and her artistic friend Em.
What then, resulted in Andy and Peter drifting apart? Now, both city professionals in glittering careers, they meet only at parties and they never discuss the past. Marcus and Em are gone – as is David, the charming fugitive they met one long ago summer in the grounds of an abandoned mansion and with whom they invented a dangerous game of missing diamonds. When Peter’s mother rings Andy to say that Peter has gone missing, the truth behind their separation – and behind the tragic events of that long ago summer – must be confronted, and the long-buried secrets of the past bought into the light.
Before the Ruins is a novel about people making very bad choices for a very long time. And, in all honesty, it’s about not very nice people making very bad choices for a very long time. Andy and her friends are difficult characters to like but no less compelling for that. Andy’s sharp edges and her self-involvement made her, for me, all the more interesting – this is a character that neither wants nor needs a reader’s pity, however much the circumstances of her life might merit it. As the subtleties of Andy’s interactions with Peter, Em, Marcus, and David are revealed, the reader is gradually allowed to connect the dots between the seemingly disconnected lives of Andy and Peter in the present, and the intoxicating, almost suffocating, closeness of the long ago summer in which things began to fall apart.
Talking too much about the plot of Before the Ruins would absolutely spoil the story – this is definitely a book to head for if you like the sound of the vibe rather than because the plot itself compels you. Because whilst the plot is compelling, it’s the gradual uncovering of secrets and making of connections that provides the real pull here and the tiny steps that the characters make towards what you know will be a revelatory moment for Andy – and for the book. Like the hunt for the ‘diamonds’ around which the teenage Andy and her friends play their games, the novel is essentially one long scavenger hunt for the truth of Andy’s life, with each new recollection dropping another clue as to the whole into the story.
One area where Before the Ruins definitely gave me The Secret History vibes is in atmosphere. Gosling brilliantly conjures up the oppressive moodiness of a long and languid teenage summer, replete with the stolen moments, sidelong glances, and bubbling tension that can only be created by a group of listless, hormonal young people caught between the securities of childhood and the promise of new opportunities and adventures. The decaying decadence acting of the crumbling manor house and its overgrown gardens provide the perfect backdrop for this coming-of-age tale, providing the perfect undertow of menace to the seemingly innocent ‘games’ being played within its walls.
Whilst there were moments when the pace of Before the Ruins did lag a little, I found myself carried along by the richly evocative prose and the compelling – if difficult and self-absorbed – characters. Those looking for thrilling revelations and dramatic reveals might be disappointed, but for readers who enjoy a slow build of bubbling tension, and a novel propelled by subtle glances and half-said truths, Before the Ruins should prove to be a captivating and atmospheric debut that is well worth picking up.
Before the Ruins by Victoria Gosling is published by Serpents Tail and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
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