From the first scene, the first big secret is born. Cara is attempting suicide because she’s discovered that her lover Frederick is a married man. She then quickly marries Billy, the man who saved her from drowning. But what she can never admit to anyone is her suspicion that their first child, Benjamin, is Frederick’s not Billy’s.
By the end of Cara’s life, the secrets have multiplied, but in a sense many of them can be traced logically back to that original secret. Benjamin always feels like an outsider in the family and is bullied at school for looking different from his two other siblings. He develops violence and ‘toughness’ as a defence, and soon gets into trouble. He later beats up his wife so badly that he almost kills her, and goes into hiding for years. Later on his daughter, having grown up in an atmosphere of domestic violence and then missing her absent father, marries a man who is just like Benjamin and abuses her.There are many more secrets in the novel – almost every character has one, including Cara’s sister Gloria and the unexplained events around the death of Cara’s friend Beattie (perhaps this, actually, is the original secret from which the others come).
What I liked about the book was that, when it does finally become the “time to tell” all the secrets, the results are often unexpected. I was afraid that it might be a sort of morality tale where, once the secrets are revealed and the characters face up to the truth, everything is neatly resolved. But it happens more subtly than that, and so feels more true to life. Sometimes the characters are able to forgive, and at other times they are not. Their reactions feel real.
There are also some great evocations of place, particularly 1950s Huddlesea, where you can really feel the claustrophobia of living in a town where everybody knows everything about everyone else and judges them on any mistake.
Sometimes I felt that the characters’ motivations or feelings were spelled out, rather than being hinted at and left to the reader to discover. For example, when Cara is living with her granddaughter Penelope, it’s immediately made clear that her husband David is abusive, so the description of his violence afterwards feels a bit predictable. I would have preferred to be presented with the facade of a happy family and discover the truth gradually, through Cara’s growing suspicions.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book. The characters were believable, and the description of a family’s secrets and the way they build on each other was convincing and memorable.