In Before We Began, Unsworth intertwines two threads of narrative, both involving the central character Sophie Barrett. The first, chronicling the friendship between a 14-year-old Sophie and two other girls, Julia and Nancy, is perpetually interweaved with the second, focusing on Sophie as a 30-year-old stuck in existential stasis. Staring into a blank void of a future, she remains haunted by the past, yet at the same time equally unwilling to relinquish it.
Unsworth recreates successfully the feeling of adolescence as “the borderland between one territory and another”. The use of flashbacks gives the childhood memories the feeling of having happened in a time vacuum, dead and perfectly preserved, even as they have scarcely begun. The past spills over into the present as childhood friends creep into conversations with current acquaintances and the suicide of Sophie’s co-worker in 1994 evokes hazy memories of 1978 which move inexorably towards tragedy.
Appealing to the part of us which yearns to change the past, Unsworth has written a novel that is melancholic, poignant, and yet cautiously optimistic, capturing beautifully an image frozen in mid-motion — of a figure with one foot tentatively set forward, even as the other is mired in the past.