The Secrets She Keeps - Michael Robotham
The Secrets She Keeps - Michael Robotham *****
Michael Robotham's latest suspense thriller is not one you should even think about reading if you are an expectant mother. Stick to the mummy blogs for more practical and sanitised concerns about having and bringing up a baby, but if you happen to be in the right frame of mind and have a few hours to spare (having been forewarned that you are going to find this one difficult to put down once you've started it) you're not going to find a better plotted, more convincingly characterised or a more terrifyingly thrilling read than The Secrets She Keeps.
Personally, I normally tend to think that it's far too easy for a thriller writer to rely on stirring up the fears and emotions that come with crimes that involve babies being kidnapped or placed in danger. That doesn't mean however that a good thriller can't be written around that theme, particularly when the author is willing to actually explore how deeply those sentiments sit in a woman's make-up, and even consider how men will react when they are exposed to fundamental questions relating to paternity. There's a lot of room for feelings to be explored and exploited, and in the case of Michael Robotham's writing here, it's not just the author doing it for the sake of sensationalism.
I don't know how many mummy blogs the author researched, but Robotham is very much on top of the concerns and behaviours of the two pregnant women involved in The Secrets She Keeps. One is Meg, who indeed does have her own blog that she fills with insights and humorous incidents relating her two young children and the new unplanned 'oops baby' that is on the way. It's a somewhat fictionalised and sanitised account of motherhood that manages to avoid some of the more unpleasant sides of the reality of her marriage with Jack, a TV sports presenter and journalist, and her involvement with his best friend Simon before they were married.
For Agatha however, Meg is her ideal of what a perfect mother should be. Working in a small supermarket and also bringing her first child to term after having suffered what appears to have been a series of miscarriages, she only wishes her life could be as perfect as Meg's. She's concerned about the baby's father, who is in the Navy and doesn't appear to want to acknowledge her pregnancy, but she's doing her best to get things back together before the baby is born. It's also apparent however that there have been difficult issues in her own family life and with her mother that suggest that there are deeper problems that may rise to the surface when it comes to starting her own family.
It's fairly obvious then that both women are keeping secrets about the nature of their relationships and are unwilling to acknowledge how their new pregnancies are likely to bring some of those hidden issues to the surface. Aside from the thriller element that follows on from this, which I will not get into at all in order to avoid spoilers, Robotham takes care to establish credible motivations in the nature of both women's hopes and desires, and the conflict that inevitably arises when those ideals conflict with each other and with reality. On its own, before we even get a sense of anything sinister or suspicious, those aspects are brilliantly explored and illustrated by Robotham's precise character studies and insights into character. He recognises the social pressures that exist, how society views mothers and how mothers (and prospective mothers) view each other, and the pressure they feel (and place upon themselves) to conform to the image of being the 'perfect mother'.
I've read quite a few of Robotham's earlier novels involving Joe Loughlin, DI Vincent Ruiz and Alisha Barba, and one of the author's great strengths is his ability to create characters that ensure that his cases always have a firm foundation in procedure and in psychological motivation. Although I've missed out on his most recent work, I've noticed that Robotham has deservedly made it over into the bestseller lists, and catching up with The Secrets She Keeps, I'm reminded just how good a writer Robotham is and why. The crime(s) here deal with some difficult issues, but Robotham has never shied away from controversial subjects and (with the exception maybe of the atypical Bombproof) he has always dealt with them realistically and insightfully.
In The Secrets She Keeps the subject is very much a psychological thriller that delves deeply into the female psyche and how women relate to the matter of motherhood and female ideals, but Robotham explores this with an eye on the added pressures that modern society places on them. More than that however, the situation takes in how men also respond to the situation that develops in the novel and the revelations there can be just as surprising as the tense developments of the thriller element of the novel. Robotham handles every aspect just brilliantly, creating a situation that develops rapidly and becomes deeply involving, with a writing style that flows to takes you seamlessly from one chapter to the next, but it's the credibility and unpredictability of the characterisation that gives the novel real value. Some aspects of human nature can be catalogued and profiled, but every individual will respond differently and no-one in The Secrets She Keeps acts like a stock character playing out to a predetermined formula, even though they might like life to work that way. There are consequently more surprises in store here than you might bargain for.
The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham is published by Sphere on 11th July 2017.