When I Was Ten by Fiona Cummins

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Fiona Cummins has produced a winner with the publication of her When I Was Ten. She shows that somewhere in a society like ours – or indeed in ours – evil flourishes beneath the bland, smiling faces of people we would never suppose to be anything but good. In like vein to Nora Roberts’s novel Undercurrents, two children live in terror of their socialite parents, Dr Richard and Mrs Pamela Carter. When the story opens, Shannon is twelve and Sara ten.

The children have every reason to be fearful.

The book begins with a prologue. A girl is running. We are not told who she is. We are told that she is struck by lightning. “The girl is thrown to the grass, her body smoking, the grumble of thunder in the air “(3). In Part 1 that immediately follows, the opening sentence is, “In eleven minutes and fourteen seconds, Catherine Allen, who only wants to be ordinary, will be dead” (7). Twenty-one years have passed. In Part 1 we learn a bit more about Catherine Allen and we discover the name of the girl who was struck by lightning.

Already we can identify a major part of the author’s technique, and that is, to drip feed significant elements of the plot and important aspects of the personalities of her characters. The lightning strike is significant. We know nothing more than that it happened. Next, we learn the girl’s name. Then, later in the book, we learn of the impact of that strike on the girl’s body. Information dripped like slowly falling water on a stone. Catherine Allen reacts in certain ways to noises in the night, she begins to believe that her husband might not be obeying the unwritten laws of marriage, there is something in her past that troubles her…each snippet appearing, and then the story moves on. Ordinary people, common events, but wielding extraordinarily powerful impacts on the reader’s psyche. Expecting a creepy, twisted tale, the reader begins to recognise horror – but nothing horrifying has occurred.

When a woman called Shannon Carter provides a tell-all interview to news reporters, the story becomes more urgent. She forces them to recall the murders of her parents in their home, the crime carried out by her ten-year-old sister. Shannon inspires the reporters to set out to find the killer, who had spent eight years in a secure facility, given a new name and re-settled where nobody knows her. Catherine is forced to tell her family her real name and details of her past as hordes of media track her down.

The story swings to the lives of Shannon and Sara Carter as children of the monstrous Carter parents. By means of significant episodes, readers are drawn to the moment when the murders are committed. So many questions remain to be answered. What readers don’t realise is that the story has not yet begun. There is much, much more. It is edge of the seat stuff. Information throwing another view of the actions we’ve observed, delivered at an unchanging pace, each event darker than its predecessor, compounding an already complicated tale. Here is one set of consequences, the author is telling us, of a childhood lived in terror and hatred.

The dreadful stream of events is told with a self-effacing, level tone throughout. It is the work of a superior writer, an avid student of human nature who, through some phenomenon, has gained the ability to snatch the mantle of crime writing that used to belong to Agatha Christie. Cummins writes nothing like Christie except in her ability to gather together ordinary people and, knowing how they respond to stimuli of various types, concocts an emotion-shattering, intelligent story that earns full marks from me.

When I Was Ten

(2020)

By Fiona Cummins

Macmillan

ISBN: 978- 1-5098-7694-5

$32.99; 384pp

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