Two women. Two lives. Two worlds. Two pregnancies. Two sets of very different secrets.
Meghan Shaughnessy is a former journalist but now something of a super-mum via her blog about family life. Her husband Jack is an ambitious and confident sports presenter for a television company. They live, comfortably and pleasantly, with their two existing children, in an affluent district beside the River Thames, a district so full of delis, bookshops, fine restaurants and boutiques that the residents, rightfully smug about their little enclave, have added the word ‘Village’ to the perfectly acceptable name by which it has been known since being recorded in The Domesday Book.
Meghan’s third pregnancy is something of an accident but nonetheless welcomed. She has been advised by her obstetrician to have a Caesarian section this time, to avoid the painful tearing she has suffered at the the previous births, but she is anxious to explain this to her thousands of blog readers, as she doesn’t want them to think that she is Too Posh to Push.
Agatha Fyfle works for peanuts in a ‘Village’ supermarket but Mr Patel, her boss, is not the kind of man to be offering generous maternity leave. He is so tight that he once docked her pay for putting the wrong price on a tin of peaches. The father of her baby is far, far away on a Royal Navy ship patrolling the Indian Ocean, chasing Somali pirates. Despite her nothing job and the desperate ordinariness of her life, Agatha has her imagination and her dreams:
“Shrugging on my winter coat, I slip out of the rear door, skirting the rubbish bins and discarded cardboard boxes. Pulling my hood over my head, I imagine I look like Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. She was a whore abandoned by a French ship’s officer, and she spent her life staring out to sea, waiting for him to return. My sailor is coming home to me and I’m giving him a baby.”
Agatha lives in a shabby flat, and her life would be as grey as a December dawn were it not for one simple blessing:
“I love being pregnant, feeling my baby inside me, stretching, yawning, kicking. It’s like I’m never alone any more. I have someone to keep me company and listen to my stories.”
Agatha ‘knows’ Meghan in the sense that she comes into the shop to buy essentials, but they have never spoken. Agatha also knows that frumpy women stacking shelves are rarely – if ever – noticed by customers, but sometimes, of a morning, she watches wistfully through the window as Meghan takes her children Lucy and Lachlan to their highly regarded schools. Some days Meghan goes off to her yoga group, other days she meets other Yummy Mummies for skinny cappucinos, chai lattes and pots of herbal teas.
Robotham tells his tale through alternate chapters spoken by Agatha and Meghan. The two women are due to give birth at around the same time, and as their due dates come nearer, we learn more and more about their families, their childhoods, their hopes and fears. And their secrets. Ah yes, those secrets. Those mistakes, those misfortunes, those cruelties of Fate, even those occasional acts of mad jealousy collison between which turn lives on their heads, and inseminate the body with an embryonic demon who grows daily stronger and more malevolent until it is time to burst out and cause devastation to both the host and their nearest and dearest.
Robotham orchestrates a collision between the lives of Agatha and Meghan. The two ships are slowly and inexorably heading towards each other and by the time they realise what is happening, there is no time to turn.
It would be an act of criminal irresponsibility to reveal any more about the plot. Suffice it to say that Robotham boxes very cleverly for several chapters, but then unleashes a series of crunching blows which put our preconceptions on the canvas. To say the plot twists would be an understatement – it spins, but always in a stable way, a little like a gyroscope, dizzyingly fast but always under control.
This is a brilliant example of Domestic Noir. The tension is ratcheted up a notch at a time, and sometimes it becomes almost unbearable. We know what is about to happen but, like Meghan and Agatha, we are powerless to alter the course of events. Readers of Robotham’s Joseph O’Loughlin novels will not be surprised at the psychological intensity in The Secrets She Keeps. Readers new to the author need to be prepared for an uncomfortable few hours.