Tuesday, June 13, 2017


THE HIDDEN ROOM by Stella Duffy (Virago, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Life is good for Laurie and Martha. They have three great kids, a much-loved home in the countryside, and after years of struggle, Laurie's career as an architect is taking off at last. Everything's perfect. Except, it isn't.

Someone is about to walk into their happy family and tear it apart. Laurie has been hiding from him for years. The question is, now that he's found her, can she keep her family safe? And just how far will she go to protect them?

No matter what 'genre' she's writing in, Stella Duffy sure knows how to tell a cracking good story. She lures readers into worlds of well-realised characters, tweaks our curiosity and fears, and takes us on a tense journey as the pages effortlessly flow by.

Duffy's return to the crime scene, after a decade plus away, is an adroit take on the 'domestic noir' craze that's taken hold of crime fiction in recent years. She elevates herself among a crowded field with the quality of her storytelling, rich characters, and the way she laces a deliciously suspenseful tale with layers of varying, all-too-human issues. The secrets and doubts that puncture our souls.

How much of our personalities, and our pasts, do we truly, fully share with our loved ones? How much should we share? Do we need hidden rooms, physically or metaphorically, for ourselves alone?

Is it better or worse to keep parts of ourself hidden away? Sanity, health, balance... it's a tightrope.

Laurie and Martha, and their family, find themselves facing those questions and more in The Hidden Room. Ramped up a few notches, thanks to Laurie's unusual childhood. She was born in China, adopted to the United States, but spent many of her younger years growing up in the desert, in a cult.

Years later, Laurie lives in the British countryside with her wife Martha and their three children. Life isn't completely stress-free: pressures of work and family impinge, devouring time and energy. But there are strong veins of happiness flowing through Laurie and Martha's life together. They've found their place in the world, together, even if they want to renovate it now and then.

That equilibrium starts fraying when Laurie's past casts a growing shadow on her present.

This is a very fine psychological thriller. Duffy's writing flows wonderfully, drawing us into Laurie and Martha's world. The narrative switches between present-day Britain and Laurie's past in the American desert, but those jumps never jar. Rather, the twin narratives build on each other, threads plaiting a rope, pulling us along. While reading The Hidden Room, I had a wee feel of some of those old school horror movies, the ones from earlier decades which were about the lurking shadows, the fears of what might happen, rather than in-your-face action and blood slashed across the screen.

There's a looming sense of 'uh-oh, what's going to happen here?' throughout The Hidden Room. A deliciously slow build in a fast, flowing read. At the same time, I was fascinated by Duffy's insights into domestic and family relationships, and all the pressures, secrets, pain, and challenges that can attach themselves to even those that seem very functional and happy overall. The pressures of work, of feeling valued, of family and parenthood. The way our own minds can be our worst enemies.

The Hidden Room is a very good read that delivers on multiple levels. Whether you devour it in one sitting (like me), or savour it over a few more bites, it's the type of tale that clutches at your attention to the very end, and stays with you in the days afterwards. Recommended.

This book is out in print in New Zealand, where Stella Duffy recently toured, but isn't published in hardback in the UK until 6 July. If, like me, you just can't wait until then, the ebook is out now and available for purchase. 

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading newspapers and magazines in several countries. He's interviewed more than 180 crime writers, appeared onstage at festivals in Europe and Australasia,  is a judge of the McIlvanney Prize, and Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. Follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

No comments:

Post a Comment