4 out of 4 stars
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Life Before is a wonderful novel which captured my attention quickly and kept me reading far into the night! Elaine Grace Dearborn (EGD) is an empty-nester who is ready to embark on her dream of becoming a writer in 2011. Eliza Genevieve Darling (also EGD) is a prostitute from 1907 who has escaped the slavery of prostitution and is now working to help other women leave their degrading situation by providing housing and the opportunity to learn a skill to support herself. As the novel unfolds, we follow Eliza’s life from teenager to womanhood, and understand the circumstances which cause her to be horrifically disfigured and at the brink of death at a young age. The history is accurate and soul-piercing, as the character comes to realize.
The story of Eliza, and then the stories of other girls enslaved as prostitutes, is so sad yet well written. I would caution, however, that detailed descriptions of sexual perversions are included in the narrative which many would find offensive. This said, I agree with the author’s usage of these descriptions as it does give a clear understanding of an unfamiliar lifestyle so that we are able to empathize and follow the progression of the life of a prostitute back in the early 1900’s. The use of opium, the varying degrees of treatment based on skin color, the abuse and disregard of the value of human life, are all clearly communicated in this novel. “Fallen. But trying so desperately hard to raise ourselves back up.”
The title, Life Before, references how the prostitutes separate their current shameful life from their life before with family/childhood. Each story is different in its origin, but the end result is the same. Some girls had been sexually abused and were no longer welcome at home, so they went to a “shelter” as they had no resources. Some girls were lied to about a school where they would get a good education only to find themselves sold into a brothel or the cribs. (As many as 150 girls, almost all colored or Hispanic, would be housed in a tenement building in small cells, “the cribs”, to be used by 40-50 men a day.) Other girls, mostly white, were sold by unscrupulous people to brothels to try to earn a living.
Life Before is fascinating as it is based on the premise of re-birth, or reincarnation, that Eliza Darling is actually a former life of the writer Elaine. She is told, “You are what the ancients used to call One of a Thousand Lives.” The same initials, a bracelet, and a locket, are used to create the connection. Whether one believes in re-birth or not, the story is an excellent read. I would rate this novel 4 out of 4 stars because it is so well-written and edited. The realization of the main characters in understanding prostitution and working to set free all those who are so enslaved is wonderful to read. I loved when Eliza realized that the white girls like herself in the brothels and the colored/Hispanics in the cribs are in the same horrible pit of slavery, regardless of their skin color. As Eliza said, “They hadn’t intended to discriminate. It was just something no one consciously thought about.” Fortunately, the rehab home is soon opened to all women as this realization leads them to the cribs and those even more unfortunate than the brothel prostitutes.
The main character in 2011, Elaine, has found her voice in writing as she experiences the life of Eliza in flashbacks to 1907. The lessons learned and the accurate history far outweigh the sadness of this book, as hope and rehabilitation and a new life is made possible by caring individuals – this message remains as true today as ever it has been true.
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