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Book Review: Before We Were Innocent by Ella Berman

Book Review: Before We Were Innocent by Ella Berman

Picture a novel that combines all the sun-soaked, cruel and confusing drama of three privileged teens alone on their first big holiday abroad and the compelling mysteries of the crime thriller genre and you can begin to get a sense of what’s in store in Ella Bermans Before We Were Innocent. This novel looks at intense friendships, the mistakes of youth and the relentless obsession of a media determined to capture every moment of a tragedy that will come to define those involved for the rest of their lives. It’s every bit as sad, suspenseful and gripping as you’d expect.

At the age of 18, recent high school graduates Bess, Joni and Evangeline jet off to Greece for their last summer of freedom before college and the real world comes calling. After weeks spent swimming, drinking, bonding and breaking apart on the sunny Aegean coast, however, the summer ends in tragedy when Evangeline dies, and her two best friends find themselves persons of interest in her death, both in the eyes of the Greek police investigating what happened that night and under the scrutiny of the world’s media who happily pick apart every text message, photo caption and snarky email exchange they’d ever written.

Ten years later, having been cleared of any involvement in Evangeline’s death, Bess and Joni are both back in California and largely out of each other’s lives, until the night Joni shows up on Bess’ doorstep unexpectedly and asks for a favour. With Joni tangled up in an eerily similar crime in LA – one that involves a missing woman, complex personal relationships and truths hidden somewhere in the grey areas – she comes to her old friend Bess asking for an alibi. Bess has no choice but to agree; she does owe Joni, after all. With the 10th anniversary of Evangeline’s death approaching and a new missing person’s case stirring up interest in the earlier tragedy yet again, the memory of that fateful summer and the night it all fell apart is never far away from Bess’ thoughts as she finally faces up to what happened. The truth is supposed to set you free, but how can you be an innocent woman when everyone wants to believe that you’re guilty?

We sounded frivolous at best, mercenary at worst, and maybe we were. But show me an eighteen-year-old saint, and I’ll show you a liar.” 

Reading Before We Were Innocent, it’s clear that this is Bess’ story through and through. But the very fact that we’re given just one perspective of the three who experience that defining summer – and the two who lived with the aftermath – inevitably stirs up more questions that it answers. There’s a deep sense of unease in all of Bess’ interpretations; in her memories of the past, wondering if she’s misremembering or misinterpreting experiences and conversations with the knowledge of what comes next, and in the present where her unique history with Joni and the complicated ties that keep their lives interconnected is inevitably influencing her beliefs and her suspicions about her estranged friend and her current situation too. Nothing is ever concrete or clear-cut in this story and it all adds to the reading experience – something which, for the most part, is done really, really well.

It’s a common problem among dual timeline narratives that one timeline ends up holding more of your interest, and while Before We Were Innocent does a valiant job of giving readers more to keep coming back for in both timelines, it is ultimately the spectre of the past narrative that shines just a little brighter. In the 2008 chapters, we’re introduced to a group of three pretty young teenagers on the verge of adulthood, fighting to keep together a friendship that’s forever being challenged by wealth gaps, individual personalities and futures that are pulling them in opposite directions.

It offers an exploration of a female friendship group that has been nurtured by under-confident, over-compensating teenagers who can lash out and be scathing to one another as easily as they can laugh and dance and thrive together, all while the fear of being left out or left behind is never very far away. Throw in weeks spent alone together in a secluded, rundown villa, shifting power dynamics and allegiances and the hint of a relationship that could split the group apart, and every new chapter of this past timeline feels alive with a kind of restless, frenetic energy that’s building up to its ultimate fallout.

By contrast, the later timeline builds slowly and steadily, stirring up seeds of mistrust and doubt but never truly to the extent of the 2008 chapters. Bess has spent the interim decade making herself and her life smaller in a bid to keep control of everything, ever fearful of how life can be turned upside down again in a moment. As a result, Bess (and the reader) feels more disconnected from the new mystery and Joni’s possible involvement in it, and with Joni’s inclination to talk around all of Bess’ questions without offering any firm answers, it’s difficult to become as invested in this unknown, tangential missing character whose only purpose is to bring Bess and Joni together again, especially when the promise of uncovering more details of the 2008 summer is just a chapter away.

Still, Before We Were Innocent is so much more than a literary suspense novel, offering up an unflinching coming-of-age story that balances the portrayal of female friendship, the vulnerability of youth and the lifelong impact of a tragedy alongside the relentless intrusion of the press, the dark side of true crime as a genre and all the grey areas that lie between truth and fiction, innocent and guilty. From its very first page, Before We Were Innocent offers up an easy dose of escapism for readers. Yet by the time you reach the final chapters there’s no denying that this is a book that burns slowly, layering up narratives and intrigue until it hooks you in so completely that not even a stilted start and a slight adrift middle can deter you from savouring every new detail.

The twists and turns of this novel may be quieter than most but they’re still effective. Ultimately, they’re best enjoyed over days when there’s nothing else to do but devote yourself entirely to this book, the mystery it contains and the characters at the heart of it all.


Before We Were Innocent is published by Aria on 13 July 2023

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