Taut thriller un­folds with pen­e­trat­ing in­sight

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Adrian McKinty

West Lon­don in the present day. Two women have a chance en­counter in a su­per­mar­ket. They are about the same age, both preg­nant, both due in early De­cem­ber.

Agatha works in the su­per­mar­ket as a shelf stacker (the “low­est po­si­tion in the place”), Meghan is a “mummy blog­ger” on the rise (a women’s mag­a­zine has picked her blog as one of the top five in the coun­try).

Al­though they live in roughly the same part of the city, they come from dif­fer­ent so­cial classes and their lives are on rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent tra­jec­to­ries. Agatha sub­sists just above the poverty line in a grubby flat with few real friends and no real con­nec­tion to her Je­ho­vah’s Wit­ness fam­ily in Leeds. The fa­ther of her baby, Hay­den, is a nice but dim sailor with whom she had a onenight stand and who is back on HMS Suther­land, obliv­i­ous to her con­di­tion.

Meghan is com­fort­ably up­per mid­dle class. Her hus­band, Jack, is an Ir­ish TV sports re­porter whom she met at the Beijing Olympic Games. Jack’s more fa­mous than she is and is of­ten recog­nised down the pub and handed phone num­bers by young women who are”des­per­ate to break into tele­vi­sion”. We meet Agatha first and we see Meghan ini­tially through her eyes. We dis­trust Agatha from the get-go. She’s not ex­actly a dis­hon­est nar­ra­tor but she watches Meghan with the gaze of a voyeur who has a dis­turb­ing, cov­etous streak.

We soon learn that Agatha is up to no good. She’s a liar and not a very good one and she may not be quite right in the head. Ei­ther that or she’s just an­noyed about how un­fair life is. She is im­pressed and ir­ri­tated by the beau­ti­ful Meghan with her glam­orous part­ner and her blog and her two kids al­ready! Why can’t she have that life?

The Se­crets She Keeps is Syd­ney-based Michael Robotham’s 12th novel and is as bril­liant as his re­cent Close Your Eyes and Life or Death, which won the UK Crime Writ­ers As­so­ci­a­tion Gold Dag­ger award in 2015. It be­gins as an acute, psy­cho­log­i­cally pen­e­trat­ing char­ac­ter study be­fore mov­ing into hair-rais­ing thriller ter­ri­tory in the sec­ond and third acts.

As you would ex­pect of some­one with Robotham’s gifts for nar­ra­tive the plot un­folds with clever, ruth­less ef­fi­ciency, but what re­ally im­presses is his sym­pa­thetic and well-ob­served un­pack­ing of the two women’s loves and lives. Both have se­crets, both have made mis­takes and both are try­ing to nav­i­gate a com­plex web of emo­tional en­tan­gle­ments.

Meghan is a self-aware hero who is cog­nisant that her life may read like a sunny cliche to her many read­ers but who knows that even her mi­nor celebrity is some­thing of a gilded cage. Agatha’s ex­is­tence is not a one-note stave of gloom and mis­ery.

Peo­ple are kind to her and at one point she is of­fered a sur­pris­ing es­cape out of the pit she is dig­ging for her­self via a gen­tle let­ter from her es­tranged mother, who wants her to leave gloomy Lon­don and come live with her in the apart­ment she is rent­ing in sunny Mar­bella.

Un­for­tu­nately for ev­ery­one Agatha is too far gone by this stage. Her ob­ses­sion with Meghan is run­ning deep.

Robotham plays with the trope of the al­ter ego here: Echo and Nar­cis­sus, Isaac and Esau and Fy­o­dor Dos­toyevksy’s 1866 novel The Dou­ble where a lowly clerk en­coun­ters a fac­sim­ile of him­self in a snow­storm; but this other him is ev­ery­thing that the clerk is not: con­fi­dent, happy, suc­cess­ful, re­spected. Meghan, too, has a lit­tle of the doomed Mi­randa Grey in her from John Fowles’s The Col­lec­tor.

Agatha in­gra­ti­ates her­self with Meghan by first im­pris­on­ing and then pre­tend­ing to save her tod­dler, Lach­lan, from a stor­age room at the su­per­mar­ket. A grate­ful Meghan is de­lighted to see her when she turns up at her yoga class and the women be­gin an un­likely friend­ship. Agatha ad­mires Meghan’s abil­ity to trans­form her­self from a pony-tailed Ly­cra clad gym bunny into a so­phis­ti­cated mod­ern wife and mother. Next to her I feel as clumsy and frumpy as a pan­tomime horse.

By this stage of the novel we’ve re­alised some­thing im­por­tant about Agatha’s baby that ex­plains her fix­a­tion on Meghan.

In­spired by a real-life hos­pi­tal kid­nap in­ci­dent from the 1990s, The Se­crets She Keeps is also an adroit satire on the me­dia feed­ing frenzy that sur­rounds cases such as this. Meghan and Jack re­mind one of the McCanns, an­other Ir­ish cou­ple liv­ing in Britain whose child was taken from them and who have been blamed and trolled mer­ci­lessly since. This is a taut, scary and ef­fec­tive thriller but it’s also a so­ci­o­log­i­cal por­trait of a so­ci­ety where cu­pid­ity, stu­pid­ity and fame of­ten co­a­lesce to make a toxic brew. is a Mel­bourne-based crime nov­el­ist. He won an Edgar Award for Rain Dogs.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.