Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. This week, we’re continuing our special look at the finalists for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel. Today, let’s turn the spotlight on Stella Duffy’s The Hidden Room.
Laurie and Martha have a successful marriage and are loving parents to three teenage children: Hope, Ana, and Jack. Laurie has gotten serious notice as an architect and is starting to enjoy some real success. And she’s finally found some peace. Originally adopted from China, she grew up in a cult, in the American desert. She left the cult, but then returned. It wasn’t until later, in her early adult years, that she made a permanent break. For her, Martha and the children represent the solid normal life she never had.
It’s a good life, too. They’ve got a beautiful home in the country, just the sort of place they want. And Laurie does love her work. Things begin to fray a bit when she and Martha begin to be concerned about Hope. She recently broke up with her boyfriend, so it was to be expected that she’d have a rough time. But she’s now become obsessed with dance. She’s not eating properly, she’s exercising and dancing more than is good for her and is showing other signs that worry her parents.
As if that’s not enough, Laurie learns that her past has caught up with her. Someone she knew long ago, and has been avoiding for years, has found her. And that could spell disaster for her and her family. Now, Laurie is faced with some awful choices. Can she protect her family without revealing too much of her past? And what will those secrets mean for her relationship with Martha? In the meantime, Martha isn’t telling Laurie everything, either. As it turns out, the secrets both are keeping could turn into tragedy for everyone.
This isn’t a traditional crime story, where there is a crime – often murder – and an investigation. That said, though, there are crimes committed in the novel, and we slowly learn about them as we learn the truth about both Laurie and Martha. But this isn’t a case of a guilty person being caught and then led away in handcuffs. Readers who prefer books that end in that way will notice this.
One of the major elements in the story is its depiction of life in a cult. The group that raised Laurie was run by a charismatic man named Abraham, and Duffy shows how his magnetism impacted everyone. At the same time as Laurie was terrified of him, and wanted to get away, she was also deeply drawn to him. Life in the group was quite regimented, with everyone having tasks to do, and very clear expectations for dress, conduct, and so on. Duffy shares the details of what it’s like to live this sort of life, and readers get a chance to ‘go inside,’ so to speak. Since Laurie grew up this way, she didn’t see it as anything but normal, and that still has an impact on her sometimes. But it wasn’t normal at all, and she knows that, too. Her experiences in the cult have left permanent marks on her personality and her reactions to life.
But this doesn’t mean that Laurie is either non-functioning or overly frail. She is bright, successful in her career, and a loving and caring parent. She has a stable relationship with Martha, too, although they have bad moments, as all couples do. Readers who are tired of protagonists who cannot interact or have relationships will be pleased that that doesn’t happen here.
And that’s another important element in the novel: the family and the bonds among them. There are arguments, misunderstandings, bad days, and some resentment. But this isn’t a dysfunctional family where people sabotage one another. The menace – the danger to the family – comes from outside.
And there is real danger. It’s not really so much physical; in fact, there isn’t much physical violence in the novel, although it’s there. The suspense is much more psychological, and so is the tension. I don’t want to say more, for fear of spoilers. But there are moments of real creepiness that come from the psychological tension.
The timeline of the novel isn’t strictly chronological. Some chapters take place in the present, as Martha and Laurie become aware of the danger to them and their family. Other chapters tell Laurie’s story, and we learn, little by little, how she came to be the person she is, and what it all means for her life now. Readers who prefer one timeline will notice this. That said, though, it’s clear (at least to me) which part of the storyline is the focus of each chapter.
It’s also worth noting that the point of view sometimes changes. Much of the story is told from Laurie’s perspective (third person, past tense). Part of it is told from Martha’s (also third person, past tense). Readers who prefer just one point of view will notice this. Readers who prefer to ‘get in the heads’ of more than one character will appreciate it.
The Hidden Room is the story of a family whose future is threatened when a dangerous part of the past comes back to haunt one of its members. It also shows the complications that can come up when people keep secrets, even if they do so to try to protect others. It takes place in the English countryside and in the American Southwest desert and features two strong female protagonists who determined to keep their family safe. But what’s your view? Have you read The Hidden Room? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 15 October/Tuesday, 16 October – A Killer Harvest – Paul Cleave
Monday, 22 October/Tuesday, 23 October – Tess – Kirsten McDougall
Monday, 29 October/Tuesday, 30 October – Mistakenly in Mallorca – Roderic Jeffries