Michael Robotham’s standalone novels have a tendency to cajole me into empathising with people who I wouldn’t expect to find sympathetic. In 2014’s LIFE OR DEATH I found myself on the side of a convicted robber and with THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS I ended up feeling compassion for two women who present, at least initially, as downright unlikable.
Agatha is single(ish), works as a supermarket shelf stacker and will lose her job – and what paltry benefits it comes with – when her baby is born later in the year. Meghan has a successful and loving husband, a pigeon pair of children soon to be supplemented by an ‘oops baby’ and her mummy blog has recently been plucked from obscurity by a women’s magazine. It’s not a complete surprise then that Agatha fantasizes about having Meghan’s life. But we’re not in SINGLE WHITE FEMALE territory here; there’s something far more subtle than sheer covetousness for the sake of it going on.
Although it is suspenseful, especially in its second half, THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS is more of an exploration of its two central characters than the term ‘thriller’ might suggest. We realise almost immediately that all is not as it seems with Agatha, but as her secrets (and she has many) are revealed Agatha morphs from the scary, one-dimensional character of many ‘airport reads’ into a woman who has had more than her fair share of life’s travails and understandably yearns for the kind of life she sees other people leading. While I baulked at some of Agatha’s methods I grew to admire the strength of her determination and could identify with the depth of her need. It became really easy to like Agatha and to somehow want her to succeed, even though for her to do so would harm Meghan and her family irrevocably. And I didn’t want that either as I grew to know Meghan. Whose life is not as perfect as it appears to outsiders and who has at least one element of her life she’ll fight to keep secret. I suppose it’s not exactly a revelation that people are rarely what they present to the world but depicting that kind of dichotomy is often done in a pretty ham-fisted way whereas here it has a real ring of authenticity and is, more than once, quite beautifully sad.
The novel also offers some cuttingly sharp observations about modern living but it’s hard to say much about these without giving away spoilers. Given that even the publisher’s blurb for this book is remarkably (and wonderfully) scant on the plot’s surprises I’d hate to give the game away so will just say that I enjoyed the book’s take on the modern media landscape and our collective culpability when rushing to judgement about things or people we know bugger all about.
In short, THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS is a terrific, character-driven novel of considered suspense. Its subject matter will be tough going for those who have shared Agatha’s particular problems but because her experiences are only ever shown to help us understand her choices, the depiction shouldn’t elicit the kind of manufactured outrage so popular in today’s world.
My experience of this book was only enhanced in the audio format very ably narrated by experienced voice artist Lucy Price-Lewis. She managed to convey the different narrative voices with subtle but observable differences and didn’t over dramatise (a pet peeve of mine).
My fellow Fair Dinkum host has already had her say about the print version of THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS.
Publisher: Hachette Audio, 2017
Narrator: Lucy Price-Lewis
Length: 11 hours, 58 minutes
Format: Audio book
Source of review copy: I bought it