Taut thriller unfolds with penetrating insight
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.