In The Spotlight: Stella Duffy’s The Hidden Room

Hello, All,

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


Filed under Stella Duffy, The Hidden Room

18 responses to “In The Spotlight: Stella Duffy’s The Hidden Room

  1. I’ve long admired Stella Duffy for her essays and her cultural activism, but I have yet to read her crime fiction, so thank you for the reminder!

  2. It sounds interesting, but I’m a bit baffled as to why it’s in the Ngaio Marsh shortlist – I was assuming it was set in New Zealand and the US. Is she a New Zealander? I think although this one does appeal I’ll still stick with See You in September because of the setting… so far…

    • It’s true, FictionFan, that this one’s not set in New Zealand. It’s set in the UK/US. As it happens, Duffy’s father is a New Zealander; and, although she was born in the UK, she really spent her growing up years in New Zealand; hence the Ngaio Marsh eligibility. I’ll be interested in what you think of the last two entries…

      • Hi Margot! thanks so much for this. I proudly have both Aotearoa/NZ and Uk passports. I grew up in Tokoroa from age 5 to 18, when I went to Wellington where I lived from 18 to 23. So I’m very much both, my entire growing up i Tokoroa specifically and New Zealand more generally influences my life and my work quite profound I think. And even after this time in the UK (over 30 years as an adult) barely a day goes by without someone asking where my accent’s from! all best, Stella

        • Thanks so much for your visit, Stella. And thank you for sharing a bit of your background with us. You’ve had a really interesting life, and I’m not surprised that you are so deeply influenced by your NZ background. I wish you much continued success.

  3. Col

    I would like to read something from Duffy one day, not necessarily this though.

    • She’s a skilled writer, Co. My strong feeling is, you’ll find something of hers that you like.

    • Hi Col, I’ve written historical, crime, literary fiction, contemporary London/UK. fantasy/magical realism, and many short stories. If any of those appeal let me know and I’ll suggest a title! all best, Stella

      • Col

        Hi Stella, I’m more drawn to crime fiction than any of your other genres. Thanks, Col

        • then if you like Golden Age, you might enjoy the Ngaio Marsh I’ve completed, out in the US on Nov 7th with Felony and Mayhem – Money in the Morgue. (thanks for the great chance to have a reader/writer conversation Margot!)

        • Col

          Ah – not massive on GA to be truthful, Stella. Maybe I’ll try one of the Sal Martin’s unless you can point me in the direction of a standalone that ticks most of my boxes? (sorry) I’ve been doing my own research in the past half hour. I’m in the UK too – 40 odd miles north of London – in sunny Leighton Buzzard!

        • Oh, a pleasure, Stella. I love this sort of conversation!

  4. Saz is pretty old now – the first one came out in 1994. Other than Saz (people tell me that Mouths of Babes is the ‘best’, it’s the fifth in five, so they’re probably right – I probably got better!) you’re left with The Hidden Room and Parallel Lies. Both Virago. Couple of dagger-winning stories in my story anthology Everything is Moving (Salt Publishing). I hope you had the glorious weather in LB that we Londoners had down here!

  5. I’ve heard lots of good things about this author and it’s very good to see your thoughts too.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

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