Every now and then a book comes along about which it’s hard not to gush. Victoria’s Redel’s lovely Before Everything fits that bill for me. I was very much attracted by its premise – five women, friends since school, come together when one of them is dying – but I hadn’t expected the bonus of such graceful, elegant writing.
Anna’s cancer has recurred. She’s been in remission several times but is done with invasive surgery, debilitating chemotherapy and the emotional rollercoaster her illness has taken her on. She’s the lodestar of the Old Friends, the name the five adopted when they were eleven. Beautiful, clever and vivid, Anna can also be selfish, manipulative and bossy. They all know that but they love her, regardless, as do the many others that Anna has drawn into her orbit over the two decades she’s lived in her neighbourhood. The women gather themselves around Anna for what may be their last day of the never-ending conversation the five of them share, taking her out on an ill-advised outing, stepping a little carelessly on the toes of the women they think of as her new friends and struggling with the imminent loss of the woman they love dearly. Each of them has their own lives, troubled and otherwise, but Anna has always been at the centre. Meanwhile, Anna’s husband continues with the hard graft of caring for his dying wife despite their estrangement.
Redel uses a fragmentary structure for her novel – full of flashbacks, vignettes and anecdote – smoothly switching perspective between Anna, her friends and her husband. These are women who have seen each other through joy and misery, difficulty and triumphs, for decades. None of them can envisage a world in which they won’t rush to tell Anna of their news, fashioning the latest mishap into a story, confiding a fear or a hope. Redel neatly avoids the saccharine, portraying the women with all their flaws and capturing the intimacy of death when the world falls away, all attention focused on the dying. It’s a beautifully crafted novel. There are a multitude of quotes I could pull out but here’s a smattering to give you a flavour: ‘They have done so much laughing, these five, they’d managed to laugh their way through even the unlaughable’; ‘Fear was always there, a gauze between her and the vivid rest of her life’; ’She imagined her dresses flouncing through town, a flutter of hems waiting at a crosswalk, an A-line flare pressing a code at an ATM’ and perhaps my favourite ‘We are here. And then we’re not. For a little while, we are a story’. A gorgeous empathetic and tender portrait of friendship, shot through with a dry humour which steers it well clear of the maudlin, Before Everything is the first of Redel’s books to be published in the UK. I hope that Sceptre have plans for her other four.
It came as no surprise to find that Redel is a poet which often turns out to be the case when I’ve particularly enjoyed a novelist’s writing, the most obvious example being Helen Dunmore. It may be a little presumptuous but I like to think that she would have loved this novel as much as I do.