I began this novel with no expectations at all beyond the blurb, which made it sound dark and murderous, something along the lines of your usual crime fiction novel. And yes it would suit those who enjoy that type of read: but it is much much more than this. This is your ultimate immersive summer read.
Our 11-year-old narrator Gracie is the eldest in her family, which comprises of her mum, occasionally her promiscuous dad, and her extremely Catholic Grandma Bett; plus Elijah, and the 3-year-old twins Lucky and Grub. She and Elijah have a secret spot that they hide in while their Mum & Dad fight (usually about his indiscretions), but she is quietly proud to be his daughter. He is, to her eyes, the best-looking man in Coongahoola. Unfortunately, many other women agree.
‘At approximately three thirty in the afternoon, while walking on the banks of the Bagooli River, Martha Mills alleges she saw a vision of the Virgin Mary.’
The Bagooli River was not somebody anybody from the town went. ‘Not after the River Picnic. Not after Stu Bailey’s wife drowned in it, and whatever else happened that night.’ But one week after the vision, the Believers arrive. There are 500 of them, to camp beside the river and to worship the Virgin Mary under the tutelage of the self-named Saint Bede.
And then the murders began. ‘From every telegraph on Main Road, Nigel’s face looked down at up. His brown hair was bleached by the November sun and the sticky-taped ‘missing’ posters were crinkled and curling.’ Nigel is the beginning of a spate of murders centred on the River Children – the group of kids born 9 months after the River Picnic, many of whom don’t resemble their purported fathers.
Gracie’s brother Elijah is a River Child.
Author Jennifer Lane has drawn the small town of Coongahoola expertly. Martha Mills (who saw the vision) was there for Gracie’s birth when her mother’s waters broke at the supermarket at which Martha worked. Gracie’s godmother the nosy Mrs Ludlum was also there, and the rest of the characters making up the small town are all brilliantly drawn, with complexity where it is warranted, through a child’s eyes. Grandma Bett is another key character – as the main caregiver when times are tough, she is Gracie’s hero, albeit with a bit more praying than Gracie would like to do.
‘Grandma Bett was always talking to God – how could he hear what Mum was saying at the same time? And what about everyone else in the world? How could he hear them all at once?’
The complexities of religious belief is an ongoing thread in the book, thanks to the Believers and their inevitable ideological clash with every other church group in town. And while Gracie was never too concerned about being unpopular; thanks to her mum’s relationship with the Believer church, she has to endure cruel bullying. But this is no ‘woe is me’ tale – Gracie is emotionally smarter than that.
Lane’s writing is fabulous for that of a first-time author. The book felt well-edited and polished (as you would expectof a book edited by the wonderful Penelope Todd), and the writing is descriptive and immersive. The moments where Gracie retreats into her own thoughts are managed without dropping the pace of the story, and there is not one chapter that you finish thinking ‘that’s enough for now.’
One of the questions I went into this book was whether it had potential to be a cross-over title – from YA to adult and back again. I think it does. The murders are handled in a clean way, no Stephen King gore to be seen (though the way in which the naive narrator is used reminds me a little of a King novel). The voice is authentically young – you never feel as though an adult’s thoughts are going through a child’s head. But it remains interesting and fascinating.
I’d highly recommend this as a summer read for age 13+. It’s a pleasure to be part of Gracie’s world, dysfunctional though it may be.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster
All Our Secrets
by Jennifer Lane
Published by Rosa Mira Books