The Woman He Loved Before (by Dorothy Koomson)

It’s some years since I discovered Dorothy Koomson, who is a British novelist. She has a well-paced style of writing, believable characters and thought-provoking plots that often cover serious issues in society. I have gradually added her books to my wishlist, and received this one three years ago on my birthday. I have a lengthy ‘to read ‘shelf which keeps having new additions, but finally I pulled this one out about a week ago.

‘The woman he loved before’ is about Jack and Libby, a married couple who clearly love each other very much. However, Jack was married before, to a woman called Eve, and he’s reluctant to talk about her or how she died. As the story opens, Jack and Libby are involved in a serious car crash, and although Jack recovers quickly, Libby’s life is in the balance for a while. When she finally goes home, she senses that something’s wrong, and becomes more curious than ever about Jack’s first wife…

The story is told from two perspectives, initially: Jack’s and Libby’s. We learn how they met; we also learn a bit about their early years and their families. And I became more and more curious about Eve, so I was pleased when Libby discovers Eve’s secret diaries, and begins to read them. At that point, Eve’s narrative, in diary form, alternates with that of Jack and Libby, and a picture is gradually built up of her teenage years, and how she got involved with Jack.

All of which sounds quite innocent, and it could have been a simple journey of discovery and growth. But Eve’s past is a shocking one, and there’s a cover note with it - included in the prologue - which suggests that she expected to be killed. As Libby comes to the end of the diaries, she realises that Eve’s past impinges in a terrifying way on her own future… yet she’s still finding it very difficult to talk to Jack.

It’s impossible to say more without giving spoilers; suffice it to say that it’s a fast-paced book that kept me gripped almost from the beginning. By the time I was half-way through I could barely put it down, and when I was near the end I kept reading long past my bedtime.

It’s a hard-hitting book, giving insight into a way of life I knew almost nothing about, yet with sympathetic characters; I found myself liking both Libby and Eve, and Jack too. There’s some bad language; more than I was comfortable with, although it’s not out of place in the context.

There are also a lot of ‘adult’ situations - again, inevitable given the storyline, but I was relieved that very little detail was given; Dorothy Koomson manages almost impressionistic descriptions with great skill. The only scene I found particularly unpleasant was one early in the book, which seemed unnecessarily graphic. But I’m glad I kept reading anyway.

For those who have enjoyed this author, I would certainly recommend this; but be aware that she does not skirt around some extremely unpleasant situations, and uses strong language freely.

Review copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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