Amanda's Circus

I’ve just finished ‘Before the Fall’ by Juliet West

Before the Fall
 I’ve had to double-check myself whilst I’ve been reading this book because one sunny day I found myself shouting at my family: “Fetch the fly spray! We don’t want no flies in here.” They gave me those long frowns – what’s she playing at now, laughed to each other and of course, carried on with what they were doing. Putting aside the flies, I’m a grammatical kind of woman and somehow I’m unintentionally adopting a bit of East End sentence construction. And that’s one of the amazing things about this book. Here’s another one I’ve caught myself saying “Dad won’t half be mad if you mess up his post.” And indeed he was. I don’t put on the accent, you’ll be pleased to know, but I’ve absorbed the language, and undoubtedly the book has got to me in an extraordinary way. Vividly capturing London’s East End, Before the Fall is a powerful and gripping story.



Set during the first world war, this is a love story about Hannah, a young married woman with two children, whose husband stupidly decides to join up and thereby sets events in motion. Hannah is a complex character, she knows she is different from the people around her but she is an innocent who, because of circumstance and also because she is desperate to fit in, is in the habit of making poor decisions. She isn’t a woman who is destined for conformity. Truly, the world is set against her, and time and time again, you think “No, no, don’t do that, go to the meeting, or confront Alec, no tell bloody George what you think, give him a piece of your mind.” But times were different and Hannah is at the mercy of so many forces.


There are many references in ‘Before the Fall’ to the work of Thomas Hardy, particularly ‘Jude the Obscure’ and also ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’. If you’ve flitted through my posts here, you’ll know that I too am a huge admirer of Hardy. Hannah’s lover, Daniel, has much in common with Jude – his love of learning and of Dorset, the illicit relationship, poverty and social ostracism and more, which I won’t go into because I don’t want to give away the end. And Hannah has a great deal in common with Tess – the sexual double-standard by which she is judged, her innocence, and then there’s those terrifying outside forces that, throughout the book, threaten to destroy her. ‘Before the Fall’ is all the richer for this.



Of course Hardy’s novels are set in Wessex – Dorset. ‘Before the Fall’ is set in London’s East End and one of the aspects I absolutely adored were the walks. I felt I was there, and by the middle of the book I felt I knew the place. I love walking, and to be led around these unfamiliar streets, and visit these tough pubs, the river and the tunnel is eye-opening. It’s extraordinary and never intrusive – the result of subtle writing and clever research. There are many examples because Hannah is desperate to get out of the house but here are two:

Laughter echoes from the pubs on Hallsville Road, but the streets are quiet for a Friday. This time last week the sky over London blazed orange: I should be grateful for the black.

An old boy and his wife walk ahead of me. They are slow, but I hold back so as not to overtake them. Arm in arm they negotiate the dark pavement, the man carrying a lamp in his right hand to pick out the uneven stones.


When we leave Whiffin’s, the sun is still hot, though it must be after five. There’s a ripe old reek coming off the docks, and the horse dung in the gutter is alive with flies. A white nag clops past, pulling a brewer’s van, great big old thing he is, temperamental, and the driver is in a sweat trying to keep him in a straight line.


‘Before the Fall’ is also very good on the intimacy of family life: the children and home play a major role in the story, and the children in particular are very alive and have distinctive characters which, I think, sets the book apart from many. There is nothing stereotypical about Alice and Teddy: the playing, the teasing, the whingeing, the annoyingness, the delight, the determination and I love to think of those children being sent out to play in the streets or down by the creek in order to give their mother a few minutes to get on with jobs or simply to have a moment’s peace. Not something any of us is likely to do nowadays but childhood was all the better for it.

I find the construction of novels really interesting and this is no exception. It is quite involved but the changes in viewpoint, the quotes and the extracts from various documents are all pertinent and surprisingly interesting. In many books, I’d skip over the documents and might stop reading at a change of viewpoint – it’s a risky business, but this is done with a magically light touch, a sprinkling of fairy dust. The story is so strong it drives you on to read, and before you know it, you’ve read the potentially boring bit, and to your surprise, found it interesting. Fascinating.

It’s a wonderful book with huge emotional intensity, and I loved it. The end is dramatic and fills us in nicely. I’m not going to give anything away but Hannah’s final decision in the book is a wrong one – not wrong for the story, but still wrong of Hannah. It is made because she is young and perhaps weak, and she doesn’t know that in life, there is always a get out clause.  Believe me. I know. There is. The question is: what would you do if you were Hannah? But of course, you won’t know nothing ’til you’ve read the book.


Here’s a picture of Juliet’s book on my bookshelves. In good company, rightly so.

Click here if you want to buy a copy.


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About writing, trickery and a little music