Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Review: What I Had Before I Had You

What I Had Before I Had You
Sarah Cornwell
288 pages
a copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

What I Had Before I Had You is intense, surprising, and charged with urgency.  In Sarah Cornwell's debut novel, Olivia, a recently divorced mother, stops with her two children at her hometown of Ocean Vista on the Jersey Shore. Olivia is moving with her teenage daughter, Carrie, and nine-year old son, Daniel, to New York, but just as she is preparing to leave the beach Daniel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, disappears. Interwoven with this story of Olivia's panicked search for Daniel are Olivia's memories of the summer of her fifteenth year--memories triggered by Daniel's disappearance, and by Olivia's first visit to Ocean Vista in two decades.

While the tension of the search for Daniel drives the novel's pace, the story of Olivia's pivotal summer is where the heart of the story lies. What I Had Before I Had You refers to the life Olivia led before she had her children, and it was a deeply strange yet thrilling life. Olivia, at fifteen, is being raised by her beautiful but fragile mother, Myla. Olivia's life is permeated with strangeness: Myla is a psychic who gives tarot readings in her home and claims to have foreseen the tragedy at Jonestown. She also has Olivia convinced--since early childhood--of the presence of the spirits of Olivia's deceased twin sisters.

When Olivia thinks she sees the ghosts of her sisters (first in the water, then on the beaches and streets of Ocean Vista) she wonders if she has inherited her mother's gift. Myla dismisses this idea, and Olivia's determination to find her sisters sets her on a journey that will lead her away from her mother and the life she has known.

The novel moves back and forth between two narratives: fifteen-year-old Olivia in search of some truths about herself and her family, and the grown Olivia desperately searching for her son. The mother daughter relationship (between Olivia and Myla, then Olivia and Carrie) is rendered in all its excruciating ambiguity. Sarah Cornwell splices the two stories together seamlessly, so that Olivia's past seems to be a constant presence hovering just behind the scrim of memory.

What I Had Before I Had You is a story about ghosts, the ghosts of guilt and regret, the ghostly presence of memory haunting the present moment. Olivia's story is told in luminous language--the writer renders the teenage hive mind particularly well--and startling and memorable images arrest the reader even as the urgency of the plot drives her forward. What I Had Before I Had You is a novel I didn't want to put down for a moment--ordinary life could wait. Readers will be haunted by the themes of guilt and forgiveness, relate to the mother/daughter conflicts, and turn the pages to see what will happen next.

Sarah Cornwell's Facebook page: http://facebook.com/authorsarahcornwell


bermudaonion said...

I haven't read a book with a sense of urgency like that in a while. This sounds really good!

Heather J @ TLC Book Tours said...

Ghosts and guilt make for a compelling combination for sure!

Thanks for being on the tour. I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for your time and for this wonderful review of my book. I'm glad you enjoyed it!