Book Review: All Our Secrets, by Jennifer Lane

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_all_our_secretsI 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
ISBN 9780994132215

 

 

 

Going West Festival: Anna Smaill and Paula Morris in conversation

cv_the_chimesAnna Smaill’s dystopian adventure story, The Chimes, has perched itself on a shelf inhabited by my favourite books. It sits with Atwood and Byatt and Janet Frame and McEwan and Orwell. And it well and truly holds its own. This young New Zealander has crafted a vision of post-‘Allbreaking’ London, which is poetry and music and quest all in one. Smaill spoke with author and friend Paula Morris about her novel, just a few days before the announcement of the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize.

Smaill is disarmingly articulate. She dances us through the concept of the book, and recreates the setting – an indeterminate future in London where a musical instrument, the carillon, casts a mass amnesia over the bulk population. She describes the city and ‘the under’, the complex of tunnels below ground wherein the protagonist and his pact mudlark for palladium. She tells us about the way music is both breaker and maker of memories, and describes how people can use music to encode a sort of topographical map, by which they might navigate during the course of a day.

It would seem that music, and the order that promotes it, is an oftentimes malevolent force in Smaill’s story. But she tells us it is more Platonic ideal, a striving for order, a weeding out of ‘dischord’, than malevolence per se. That leads Morris to question Smaill’s own relationship with music. Smaill relates her past as a musician and a student of music, her own limitations as a violinist, and her ambivalence about the musical world. She hints, however, that she may make a return to playing, with a different instrument.

pp_anna_smaillSmaill and Morris discuss memory, and the lack of memory, as a very central aspect of the book. Smaill talks about the difficulty of creating first person narrative under such constraints. Simon, her central character, is under the grip of the carillon’s amnesiac chiming, and so has a slippery hold on notions of other characters and events and places. Smaill tells us that, with these conditions in play, she was unable to employ many of the usual tools which help a writer create an idea of character.

Morris asks Smaill about the lexicon of her story – the portmanteaus, neologisms, musical terms and archaic words. Smaill says that many of the words, especially the portmanteaus, came about ‘organically’. There are words, too, where spelling has been chosen to give a word multiple meanings, as with her use of ‘mettle’. She credited Riddley Walker as an inspiration here.

Smaill and Morris also spoke about living in London, and about Smaill’s own process of, once back in New Zealand, trying to remember the city she left so as to finish the novel – a process, Morris notes, that is akin to the straining-to-remember that her characters endure.

Finally, there was talk about Young Adult fiction as a genre, whether The Chimes fits the Young Adult brief, and Smaill’s dismay at the banning of Ted Dawe’s award-winning book for young adults, Into the River. Oh, and she mentioned that she’s creating a new novel, set in Tokyo.

A splendid session. Anna Smaill was all I imagined her to be, and then some. I thoroughly recommend you acquire a copy of her novel.

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Morton
Sunday, 13 September at Going West