Kelly Rimmer’s novel, Before I Let You Go, is one that has stayed with me long after finishing it. It features sisters Lexie and Annie who were in a loving, nurturing family which dissolved when their father died. Their mother fell into depression and young Lexie had to take over parenting responsibilities, setting up a pattern for life. Then their mother decided to move them to the sect where some of their family lived. When she married Robert their lives changed irrecoverably.
Going back in time between their lives as children and adults, together with the journal entries Annie writes when she is in rehab, we learn what led Annie into a life of substance abuse, while Lexie has become a doctor, and is engaged to Sam, another doctor, from ‘old money’. He hasn’t been exposed to lives like Annie’s, and while he says he wants to support Lexie, we can understand why she is worried about opening up about their past, and the extent of the damage done.
Rimmer has set the book in Alabama where pregnant women with drugs in their system can be charged with the criminal offence of chemical endangerment of a child. When Lexie finds Annie pregnant, and has been using heroin we see the way that the legal, medical and child protection systems judge and treat addicts, with no understanding of what might lie behind this disease, and of the person involved.
The book informs about NAS – neonatal abstinence syndrome – what babies born to mothers who have used drugs during pregnancy face when born, and of addiction, as a disease, how it starts and develops, and that it needs healing to overcome it.
Both women carry guilt and responsibility. We can see Annie’s potential and happiness taken away by the trauma and abuse she suffers. She becomes what Robert told her she was, not what she dreamed of, as he breaks her spirit. Lexie who is used to dealing with crises by herself shuts Sam out which threatens their relationship. I felt frustrated with her as she tries to help Annie, but never gives up on the hope that she will get through it. The tragedy that their mother chooses Robert and the church over her own daughters is heart-breaking.
While the legal system is different here in Australia, there are similarities in how an addict would be treated. As Rimmer says in her note at the end of the book, ‘a person with an addiction is not a label or a problem to be solved: the individual is someone’s sibling, someone’s child, someone’s beloved uncle. Addiction is ugly, but its victims each have a story and a life that matters’. This book goes a long way to raising this issue and looking for more understanding and less judgement.