Reviewed by Angela Marie
“Take care…the value of a secret depends upon whom you’re trying to keep it from. You may think it’s worth a lot. I may think it’s worthless. Someone always has to pay.”
In Michael Robotham’s latest cliffhanger, the key title word, “secrets”, conjures an immediacy of need to know. Is the reader entering a net of thoughtfulness or gossip, a world of intrigue, blackmail, opportunism, or shame and despair? Will the act of keeping secrets be honourable or will it be devious? Kind or cruel?
Why do you keep a secret? Is it because you have shared someone else’s burden and pledged the loyalty of your friendship? Is it because you care for those who may be wounded by the reveal? Is it because of personal power and the timing of disclosure? It would be rare to meet someone who does not have a secret tucked up their sleeve or strapped across their heart. A secret does not have to be shadowy or dark, but efficiently we are given an inkling of what is to come. In THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS, the cover design draws the reader in with the teaser, “The life she wanted wasn’t hers….”. Economical and enigmatic.
THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS is a novel crafted with slow and deliberate care. There are liberal sprinkles of pop culture to anchor the time as contemporary. The author is meticulous with character development, introducing us to Agatha and to Meghan in a turn-by-turn dual narrative. In this seamless transition there is never a doubt as to whose voice we are hearing. Other characters enter the tale; Meghan’s husband, Jack, his good friend, Simon, Agatha’s absent boyfriend, Hayden, her neighbour, Jules, and people from the past . All have a purposeful and intricate part to play, however all our energy becomes focussed on the interplay of Agatha and Meghan.
Meghan has it all. She is a blogger on parenting, and has children, a husband, a home, and a yoga-and-cafe-society lifestyle. And she is pregnant again. And unaware of Agatha. Agatha is a part-time convenience store employee, pregnant and alone and lonely, and devouring all things Meghan. Agatha expresses admiration of Meghan’s seemingly perfect world. “Now we’re both in our third trimester with only six weeks to go and Meg has become my role model because she makes marriage and motherhood look so easy.” Destined not to meet until their worlds touch in a chance encounter in the store, earning Agatha Meghan’s absolute gratitude. Unknown to one, their sole commonality will set in motion events that are too horrible and desperate to contemplate.
Agatha has her secrets. So too does Meghan. Both will go to calculated lengths to protect these. Enter The Lie, the partner of Secret in the literary dance. And lies cover lies until the truth is somehow nestled safe inside. As a character reveals, solely to the reader, “Lying comes very naturally to me, while the truth is awkward and uncomfortable like ill-fitting shoes. It’s not that I set out to be manipulative or cunning; and the lies I tell others are nothing compared to the ones I tell myself.”
There develops an outreaching of trust and friendship between Meghan and Agatha, seemingly fostered by coincidence, and yet birthed in elaborate design and the most meticulous planning. Who is manipulated and who is the manipulator? The warning signs continue to flash. Beware whom you befriend. How chance is a chance meeting? Who is watching whom? To reveal more would remove the element of surprise.
As we come to understand Agatha and Meghan, and absorb the microscopic examination of human desperation, the plot begins to quicken and the elements fall dramatically and solidly, yet not predictably, into place. We are led from city to town to countryside and back. We experience a seesawing of emotion between empathy, sympathy and abhorrence, joy and shock, and reaffirm that childhood neglect and abuse are catalysts that construct the adult psyche.The sheer evil of human intent leaves behind a trail of the walking wounded. As past events unfold, we are stunned by what we are reading. This is an intimate account and we become drawn into it.The reader sees into the mind of evil but is powerless to intercede, and can only read on as what we fear comes to pass.
Will the anguish of a new mother be quelled and calmed as all is restored to what it should be, or will there be eternal heartbreak? Will this be the perfect crime? Others almost were. It seems that all bases have been covered, or have they? Will there be a single thread to allow the unravelling of the deception? Inevitably there will be a winner and a loser. Or winners and losers.
Herein lies one of the strongest reasons why we may have a preference for the genre of psychological crime fiction. We relish the thrill of being jolted out of our comfort zones and dragged to dark places, knowing we are able to rise and draw breath. Strap yourself in for an excellent read that is truly hard to put down. Hold onto the sides as the plot twists and turns. And marvel at the craft that allows essential details to be slipped in and layered, and that manifests itself into a watertight unit.
That Sydney-based Michael Robotham was an investigative journalist prior to becoming a writer is no surprise. His attention to detail is superb. His ability to plot out plausible psychological responses and situations has been honed by working alongside clinical and forensic psychologists as they assisted police investigations. He has written more than a dozen novels. His 2004 debut novel, THE SUSPECT, was a million seller. His 2015 novel, LIFE OR DEATH, won the UK’s Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award. Among crime writers Michael Robotham is a heavyweight with deserving kudos from established and familiar authors including Stephen King and David Baldacci. This reader looks forward to meeting more of his work, having now slipped into his legion of fans.
THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS
BY Michael Robotham
ISBN 978 0 7336 38015 (pbk)