Review - All Our Secrets, Jennifer Lane
If there is one thing you'll come away from ALL OUR SECRETS with, it's the voice of Gracie Barrett ringing in your ears. It's an impressive portrayal.
There's something very worrying going on in the fictional town of Coongahoola, New South Wales. It's not just The Believers (or Bleeders as they are quickly nicknamed) - a cult led by the oddly charismatic Saint Bede. Long before they arrived there was the infamous River Picnic, on the night Malcolm Fraser became Prime Minister. Stu Bailey's wife drowned in the Bagooli River and there's a group of kids around town, all born around the same time, that don't look like their dads - everyone calls them the "The River Children".
Which never seemed to be a major problem for Coongahoola. Everyone knew and despite a bit of huffing and puffing about some childish pranks, most people seemed not to care too much. But then River Children start disappearing, and Gracie is worried for a lot of reasons. Her own family life is a more than a bit chaotic. Her Mum and Dad got married very young, Dad has moved out and seems to be continuing his pattern of relationships with a lot of women in town. Gracie, her Mum Nell, the twins Lucky and Grub, and her brother Elijah all live with Grandma Bett. Dad's mum, friend of Nell despite the marital complications, and the families constant in their slightly crazy lives. There's lots of love in this bunch of battlers, for all their problems they are a family - supportive, loving, caring, accepting and worried. Elijah is a River Child after all.
Told from Gracie's point of view, the tone and observations of a young girl feel absolutely spot on. Gracie's a good kid, bullied and anguished, she's funny, kind, loving and conflicted. She wants her family to stay together, Dad to come home and Mum to stay away from Saint Bede. She wants Elijah to be safe, but she's not too keen on the solution of shipping him off to relatives to keep him out of harm's way. She loves her Grandma even though she doesn't always get her, and she likes the town that she lives in, even if sometimes people can be a bit iffy. She's also somebody who isn't going to sit around and wait for a solution when things go pear-shaped. Somebody's killing River Kids and she's going to find out who it is.
Right from the opening lines you get an immediate feel for the tone of Gracie's voice and hence the book:
The first bad thing happened back when Elijah was five. Some people reckoned it triggered all the terrible things that happened later. But despite what they said, it wasn't Elijah's fault. He's my brother and I know everything about him, even that he was circumcised at nine months (thought that's not much of a secret - the fight Mum and Dad had afterwards was loud enough for the whole of Australia to hear). I know better better than anyone that he didn't mean to kill Sebastian.
(no spoiler provided as you'll find out very quickly who Sebastian is and what happened).
Author Jennifer Lane lives in New Zealand, was born in Australia, and has had short stories published before, but (I understand) this is her her debut novel. Sitting somewhere between something aimed at older teen readers (Gracie is 11, nearly 12 in this novel), and something that is very readable for adults, ALL OUR SECRETS is strongly voiced, has a great sense of place and character all round, and an excellent plot. It's an absolute gem.
The River Picnic was one of the biggest events that ever took place in Coongahoola, and even wilder than the street party the night Malcolm Fraser became Prime Minister. The adults spoke about it in whispers and only when they thought us kids were out of earshot. All I knew for sure, apart from the fact that Stu Bailey’s wife drowned that night in the Bagooli River, was that four times more babies than usual were born the following October and not all of them looked like their dads.
A girl called Gracie.
A small town called Coongahoola, with the dark Bagooli River running through it.
The Bleeders — hundreds of ‘Believers’ who move in and set up on the banks of the river. Who start buying up the town, and winning souls.
The River Children — born in the aftermath of the infamous River Picnic. They start to go missing, one after the other.
Gracie Barrett, the naively savvy spokesperson for her chaotic family (promiscuous dad, angry mum, twins Lucky and Grub, Elijah the River Child and fervent, prayerful Grandma Bett), for the kids who are taken, for the lurking fear that locks down the town and puts everyone under suspicion.
Gracie is funny and kind, bullied and anguished, and her life spirals out of control when she discovers she knows what no one else does: who is responsible.
All Our Secrets is jaunty, quirky and heart-achingly real. Coongahoola is where hope and fear collide, where tender adolescence is confronted by death, where kindness is a glimmer of light in the dark.