THE GIRL BEFORE by Rena Olsen
CBTB Rating: 4.5/5
The Verdict: immersive, psychologically astute suspense
I picked up Rena Olsen’s THE GIRL BEFORE on a bit of a whim, and I am so glad that I did. This book truly surpassed my expectations, so much so that I wound up crying on public transportation while finishing it. (Seriously, I did.) This immersive, gripping psychological suspense novel tackles topics of abusive relationships and emotional trauma with compassion and skill—a direct reflection of author Rena Olsen’s professional expertise. I highly recommend this book if you’re looking for an engaging crime book that will leave you thinking long after you've turned the last page.
What truths are revealed when your sanctuary – your home – is violated? Clara is about to find out. While spending a quiet evening at home with her family, Clara’s life is suddenly shattered when armed men storm the house, dragging her away from her family while her husband shouts after her to “say nothing.” Clara awakes to find herself in a small cell, the subject of interrogation by strangers. Who are these people, and what do they want with her family? Clara is determined not to give in… but as these strangers reveal dark secrets about her husband and his business, Clara begins to realize that her apparent captors might actually be her saviors.
First things first: let me be clear, this is not a kidnapping story. I went into the book with that assumption, that the reader would be in the dark about Clara’s captors, trying to piece together the truth about why they took her. That is not at all the case. Instead, the reader almost immediately figures out what is going on—and the story then takes a totally fascinating approach, contrasting our clear understanding of Clara’s situation with her own perception of that situation. Without spoiling anything for you, this book deals heavily with the topic of abuse and its impact on an individual’s worldview. How does the victim of an abusive relationship perceive what is happening to him or her? What happens if the victim has never known anything but an abusive relationship? What coping mechanisms might they develop out of sheer necessity, and how might they respond when those mechanisms and the worldview they have developed are confronted?
It's hard to discuss this story without spoiling the secrets at its heart, but it’s worthwhile to note that author Rena Olsen knows what she’s talking about when it comes to these sensitive topics of emotional and physical abuse. Olsen has earned both a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, and works as a licensed therapist. Her professional expertise is what drives this book. Olsen handles topics that are truly painful and heartbreaking with a sensitivity and compassion illustrative of her professional commitment to healing these wounds. It’s rare to find a crime book that deals with these topics in such a thoughtful way, and I was wholeheartedly impressed with Olsen’s ability to tactfully portray such sensitive issues through a fictional character.
Because this book’s secrets are so tightly woven with its central plot, I’m not going to discuss the story’s actual development with you guys today. You deserve to experience it the way I did, allowing each piece of the puzzle to fall in place before your own eyes. I will just reiterate that this isn’t really a story of twists and turns or shocking reveals; it’s truly immersive because of Clara. We, the readers, see so clearly the reality of Clara’s situation, and we feel deeply for her and are also horrified by the ways she has blinded herself to the truth about her husband and his business—and even worse, how she has taken part in his crimes. It’s simultaneously heartbreaking and infuriating, and I was glued to the pages.
If you are looking for a book with strong character development, thoughtful yet truly gut-wrenching portrayals of the lasting impact of abusive relationships, and a fully immersive plot, I highly recommend THE GIRL BEFORE by Rena Olsen.