Allen & Unwin, RRP $32.99, Fiction
7.30 am London. Not long before Christmas. A cafe called Tuckbox. A young man with a gun enters and a nightmare begins. Charity Norman explores what happens next in her sixth novel The Secrets of Strangers.
The story brims with suspense and energy, full of bubbly language that feels cosy and comfy even when we’re reading about violent and terrifying events. Norman writes characters with incredible depth – the people in her books fizz with detail. She wants us to see them as though they are real, believe in them. Her last novel, See You In September, was shortlisted for the Best Crime Novel at the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Awards for Crime Fiction, and Second Chances was a Richard and Judy Book Club Choice in the UK, so if you haven’t read any her books yet, and you enjoy fiction with a gripping plot, you need to remedy that.
The Secrets of Strangers moves quickly – short chapters lending the narrative a strapping pace. The main characters are introduced one by one – Neil, a former teacher now living rough; Abi, an ambitious solicitor on her fifth round of IVF; Mutesi, a carer from a nursing home having breakfast with her grandson; Eliza, a copper working as a negotiator; Rosie, a waitress. Although Norman now lives in New Zealand, the characters feel distinctly British. At times I thought it felt like a PG version of the Bodyguard television series with the original King of the North, Richard Madden. But less sex, and less violence. Although there is a dead body on the floor for most of the book, he’s mostly ignored, and sometimes I forgot he was there.
Secrets do abound in this book, not least the ones Norman keeps from the reader: Why is Neil homeless, what is the tragedy in Mutesi’s past, why doesn’t Abi tell her husband she’s taken a pregnancy test, who is Rosie, who is Nicola. Who is Sam? Why is he holding these people hostage?
These secrets, these hidden pasts, are often referred to in the story – we find out the horror of Mutesi’s past in Rwanda, we hear about Arthur’s lucky absence from the tube station in Balham that was bombed in World War II, an event that also featured in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Norman reminds us constantly that our present selves are not always what they seem: past trauma is often hidden away, and we should be gentle in our appraisals of others.
The short chapters lend the story a pace that feels hectic and out of control, much like a hostage situation must feel like to the people involved. With each chapter change, and sometimes within a chapter, the character point of view switches, and we’re lifted out of one person into another with a speed that gives a couple of characters short shrift. It does give the novel the quality of a film, with quickly shifting camera angles. I admire Norman’s astonishing ability to throw many balls into the air – and catch them. There’s not one loose thread, not one idea or tangent that isn’t followed up on, and this thorough plotting is more difficult than it looks.
Later in the book, Mutesi speaks about the power of the radio. We hear Abi’s partner Charlie speak on the radio playing in the cafe. I thought of the radio in All The Light We Cannot See; of Serge Carrefax, born to the noises from the first wireless stations in C by Tom McCarthy; of Hinemoana Baker’s new collection of poetry Funkhaus, that takes the German word funken – a transitive verb meaning signal or ‘ to radio’ – and I think of the power of words. Words that travel along lines, in radio waves, words that we hear whispered into our ears. Sam finds a sense of peace when he tells his story to Eliza. He says it is the first time he feels heard. The first time someone truly listened. And I suppose that is all anyone might want, too: to speak and be heard. To feel a connection to others; to find community. To be supported by those people, and not hurt by them. The Secrets of Strangers offers us a glimpse into a tragedy that leads to friendship, with strangers that we might otherwise have passed by on the street.