Before She Knew Him
Peter Swanson
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Buy *Before She Knew Him* by Peter Swanson online

Before She Knew Him
Peter Swanson
William Morrow
320 pages
March 2019
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Though the plot of Swanson's novel is lifted straight from Psycho, at the story's symbolic heart is a voyeuristic theme that titillates and also frightens. Hen and Lloyd meet Matthew and Mira Dolamore at a neighborhood party. From the outset, there's a natural affinity between the couples. Matthew is good-looking and charismatic; he reminds Hen of "a mannequin, with his broad shoulders and his large, knuckly hands."

Later that night, with Lloyd asleep next to her, Hen tells herself that it's a ridiculous thought to have: Matthew is a teacher at prestigious Sussex Hall. Hen thinks that Matt is somehow involved in the homicide of student Dustin Miller, a Boston graduate found dead in his home two years previously. Hen knows that if she's going to notify the police about her suspicions, she'll eventually have to tell Lloyd.

Matthew's elaborate evasions are evidence of what was probably some kind of systematic killing. Matt seems more concerned with the welfare of fellow teacher Michelle, whom he's taken under his wing, offering up his lesson plans and privately vowing to take care of her boyfriend, who he suspects is a philanderer.

Hen has always had a morbid streak, a preoccupation with death continuing long after her forced psychiatric treatment and community service. This constant sense of anxiety is tied to Hen and Lloyd's decision not to have children. From Hen's voice to Matt's, Swanson unfolds every little plot twist. Hen is plunged into a sequence of blood-strewn spiderwebs shaped around Matt's connection to Dustin Miller; Matt's attempted explanation to Mira of his father's sophisticated cruelty toward Matt's mother (he "could never explain it to her in a way she would get it"); Mira's doubts about her husband; and Hen's visualization of something intangible in Matt's knotted past.

The ground is being hacked away from beneath Hen's feet. Who is Matt watching? She's already looked up some stories about Dustin's case, about how he had been accused of rape when he was in high school. Swanson shows Matt's suffocating rage at Hen for how she came out of nowhere, abruptly accusing him of a crime. There's nothing to worry about, though, because the police don't believe Hen because she has a history of making unfounded accusations.

Though the secrets of Matt's past involving his brother Richard keep us turning the pages, Swanson's intimate grasp of Hen and Matt's psyches makes his thriller so utterly entertaining. For all his normalcy, Matt had a twisted childhood. He might be a regular "all-American guy," a dedicated teacher and a trustworthy husband who sometimes acts childlike and needy, but Matt has a much darker side. Hen is a complicated work in progress, a woman forced to rise above the limitations of her fragile mental health.

From Hen's racing thoughts and paranoia to her constant sense of dread ("I know exactly who Matt his and my condition has nothing to do with it"), Swanson ramps up the action into a violent confrontation exploring the damage Matt inflicts and the strength it will take for Hen to heal.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2019

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