Set on the south shore of Nova Scotia, just outside of Halifax, One Who Was Has Been Here Before by Becca Babcock is a seasonally appropriate read: mysterious, vaguely spooky, and full of emotionally complex situations. It’s very reminiscent of Gothic literature, with a strong contemporary and a very pleasing Maritime twist (for those of us who are Maritimers and devoted to reading literature set in the region).
Emma is a mature grad student at the University of Alberta, starting work on her historical auto-ethnography involving the infamous Gaugin family, who lived on a compound in rural Nova Scotia. They kept to themselves, and ultimately, the adults were all arrested for a whole host of crimes, including neglect, child abuse, incest, and sexual assault. The children were taken from their parents and put into foster care, or other situations under the care of the province. Early on in Emma’s exploration of the abandoned Gaugin compound, we learn that she was one of those children – and this journey to work on her thesis was also a journey to answer her questions about her birth family and where she came from.
Babcock was inspired by the real-life infamous Goler clan, who were very similar to the Gaugins of her novel, and alluded to in the text: Emma mentions that the raid of the Gaugin compound was inspired by crackdowns on similar families. But those looking for a lurid retelling of the life on one of those compounds will be disappointed. Babcock instead focuses on Emma’s exploration of her past and her tentative connections with those who populated it.
There are a number of “twists” in this novel; Babcock doesn’t give away much at the beginning, though as we get to know Emma and her topic area, the twists are very easy to spot and guess. To me, the most beautifully written parts were about Emma’s mental health and the parsing of her trauma. Babcock writes these with such tenderness and a keen understanding of the pain of anxiety and depression.
Overall, while this was a novel that was easy to figure out before all the pieces had been revealed, it was compelling and sensitive. I was drawn into Emma’s journey of study and self-exploration, and even enjoyed a giggle at the fictional University of Nova Scotia, a clear stand-in for Dalhousie University, down to a description of the library that matches the Killam Memorial Library. And while the novel was not particularly spooky, story-wise, Babcock created a brilliantly dark, strange, and foreboding atmosphere throughout. An excellent fall read!
Rebecca Babcock is an award-winning writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She holds a Master’s degree from the University of Alberta and a PhD from Dalhousie University. She often worries about being asked for medical help and having to explain she’s not that kind of doctor. She has previously published a short story collection, Every Second Weekend, and her fiction has appeared in literary magazines in Canada and abroad. One Who Has Been Here Before is her first novel.
- Publisher : Vagrant Press (April 12 2021)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 280 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1771089296
- ISBN-13 : 978-1771089296
Alison Manley bounced around the Maritimes before landing in Miramichi, NB, where she works as a hospital librarian. She has an honours BA in political science and English from St. Francis Xavier University, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. When she's not reading biomedical research for her work, she likes reading poetry, contemporary and historical fiction, and personal essays. Noted for a love of bright colours (and lipstick), you can find her wandering the banks of the Miramichi River with a book and a paintbrush.