Before I Saw You by Emily Houghton

‘Who was the girl hidden behind the curtain?’

Alfie Mack has been on the Moira Gladstone (rehabilitation) ward at St Francis’s hospital in London for some weeks.  His left leg was amputated after an accident, and he is undertaking extensive physiotherapy.  There are other patients on the ward as well, and Alfie does his best to fill in the time around his physiotherapy sessions by keeping them amused.  But Alfie’s life changes when a new patient is moved into the bed next to him.  Alice Gunnersley has been so severely burned that she cannot look at herself and does not want others looking at her either.  Alice has not spoken a word since she was admitted to hospital.  The curtains around Alice’s bed are kept firmly closed.  Alfie cannot imagine someone being silent for so long, and he is sure that being on the Moira Gladstone ward will make a difference. Why?  Because people stay on the Moira Gladstone ward to recuperate, and over time (in his experience) they become family.

But Alice has always valued solitude, and she is deeply traumatized.

The story shifts between Alfie and Alice, between past and present.  Alfie talks to Alice through the curtains and slowly she responds. Alfie has his own fears, as the time for him to re-join the outside world comes closer.  And their most intense conversations occur at night when insomnia and nightmares intrude.  Alfie has his fears but is mainly positive.  Alice is hoping that surgery will provide her with a face she can be seen with.

Ms Houghton has developed her two main characters and their concerns well.  At different times, the story is bleak, heartbreaking, and sad.  But there are also flashes of humour, and hope.

‘Our scars are simply the marks of our stories.  They show we’ve lived our life, and most of all that we have survived it.’

This is Ms Houghton’s debut novel.  I became so caught up in the story that wanted more: what will happen next?

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Random House UK, Transworld Publishers for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith