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  • Writer's pictureCaitlyn Lynch

Book Review: Before She Was Helen by Caroline B. Cooney

Before She Was Helen, she was Clemmie - a sweet, naive girl growing up in 1950s small-town America, a pretty girl who was easy prey for a predator.

It takes the whole book for Clemmie’s story to be revealed; though we know from early on she’s living under an assumed name, the tragedy of exactly why falls out more slowly. It’s a sad one, with rape, stalking, a forced adoption of her baby and more in Clemmie’s background… and though she’s fearful of arrest for what she did, and we know there’s at least one dead body in her wake, there was never a point at which I thought Clemmie deserved anything other than the quiet retirement she’s working so hard on having.

The problem is that trouble comes to Clemmie when her neighbour doesn’t answer one of his regular check-ins. Using a key left with her, she goes around to visit and finds nothing much out of the ordinary except for an extraordinarily beautiful glass sculpture. Taking a picture, she sends it to her grand-nephew and niece, only for them to tell her it’s not a sculpture as such, it’s a drug pipe - and it’s been stolen from an artist who badly wants it back.

The artist, Boro, isn’t just a glass artist, though, and he has no intention of getting the police involved. He’s a dealer, shipping CBD oil and other products legal in some states like his own of Colorado, around the US to other places they’re not so easy to obtain, and the glass artwork wasn’t the only thing stolen from his shop. There’s a million dollars missing, and he wants it back. A sweet little old lady should be easy enough to intimidate into telling everything she knows. Except this little old lady apparently has serious secrets of her own.

And then the body turns up.

This was such a great read. Clemmie is an object of both pity and admiration; nobody should ever have to suffer what she did (and it’s awful that in a lot of places, the attitude towards women who have been raped hasn’t changed… they are still accused of having ‘asked for it’ or disbelieved) and her strength and determination to make a life for herself was something I really liked about her. There were a few interesting little twists and I did wonder exactly what the decisions of certain people to put their DNA results into an ancestry tracing website would come back with, though the actual truth wouldn’t have any real consequences for Clemmie if she chose to tell it to the right people.

I didn’t see the murderer coming at all; it was a startling twist, but there were quite a few questions left unanswered - where did Dom and the Coglins go, for example? The shenanigans in an apparently peaceful retirement community does make one wonder; if it could happen there, it could happen anywhere!

Although there were unanswered questions and the final twist did mean Clemmie’s story wasn’t quite over, I was quite satisfied with the ending. A thoroughly enjoyable read and I’m happy to give it five stars.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this title via NetGalley.

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