Not since “Orange is the new black” and “Sleeping Beauties” have I had a chance to peek inside a women’s prison. Ruth Dugdall writes with great insight coming from her past working as a probation officer in 1996 with offenders guilty of serious crimes, including stalking, rape and murder.
“The woman before me” starts off with Rose Wilks sneaking through the back door into Emma’s house. It’s close to 3AM and she goes to the child’s room and picks up and cuddles the baby, Luke. Then she hears sounds of intercourse coming from Emma’s bedroom. She must be in there with her husband Dominic.
Skip forward a few months and we find Rose Wilks as the accused in a trial for the murder of Luke after starting a fire in Emma’s house from a package of cigarettes. Rose denies the arson, denies the murder, pleads “Not Guilty” but all the evidence points against her. She was in the house at the time, she was breaking in. She touched the baby. She was depressed after her own child died and decided to kill the child of her best friend, Emma. She was Luke’s wet nurse and loved him like a mom so her motive was blurry at best.
She’s sent to jail for twenty years for murder in a high security prison, her child-murder kept under secret for her safety as the other inmates do not handle baby killers well.
If you think this was a great start to a book, you would be right! The book just gets better from here on. Rose Wilks keeps a black book diary where she writes down her story and as she writes it down, we learn too that she lost her mom when she was just entering puberty. She gained a step-mom – the woman her dad was secretly having an affair with.
Her step mother was a woman who liked to doll up, dye her hair, put on make-up and did not own one single pair of trousers. As Rose sees it, her love was more obvious to her dad, rather than her mom’s love – which was paler, more subdued of sorts.
Rose finds a latent lesbian streak in her when she starts masturbating when peeking through a hole into her step-mother’s bedroom when she was performing the same act. She is subsequently found out and sent to live with her aunt. When her aunt dies, she starts working in a sea-side hotel as a waitress and then as a chamber maid. She hits on another girl and gets her fired when she refuses her advances and shortly after she meets the love of her life – Jason – who unfortunately did not reciprocate her affections.
So starts a love triangle between Rose, Jason, and his ex, Emma. Rose is determined, manipulative, knows her strengths and her flaws, knows she is big and stocky while Emma is small and fairy-like. She knows that Jason sometimes disappears from home to go see Emma and then returns shattered when Emma casts him away. She knows that Jason carries a picture of Emma in his wallet. She knows why he checks his phone so often and why he never tells her who calls. She knows that her boyfriend never loved her but she hopes that he will love their child.
“I thought we were going to be a normal family, just like I’d always wanted.”
Her life is destroyed when her newborn baby Joel is admitted to intensive care. At the hospital Rose befriends Emma Hatcher, a woman who has all that Rose lacks. Beauty. A loving husband. A healthy son – and the affections of her boyfriend, Jason.
Now, having spent nearly five years behind bars, Rose is just weeks away from freedom. Her probation officer Cate must decide whether Rose is remorseful for Luke’s death, or whether she remains a threat to society. As Cate is drawn in, she begins to doubt her own judgement.
It’s a book that makes you think about morals, right and wrong, I felt different emotions for Rose all through the book from pity, to empathy to sheer disgust, she is a complex and very flawed character. This is one of those books that you just can’t predict and the very ending will just take your breath away.