Crime Scene: AOIFE CLIFFORD All These Perfect Strangers. Reviewed by Ruth Wykes
This is about three deaths. Actually more, if you go back far enough. I say deaths but perhaps all of them were murders. It’s a grey area. Murder, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Imagine yourself as a 16-year-old girl who grew up in a small country town, then left at the first opportunity to explore the strange new world of university in the big city. You are about to enter the world of Pen Sheppard. It is, on the surface, an ordinary picture of a life that has barely begun. Yet Pen has been strangely close to three unusual deaths. Her best friend from school is in prison after being convicted of murdering a local police officer and the reader learns early that Pen was caught up in that investigation. She leaves the country life behind when she goes to university to study law. But within six months there are two more suspicious deaths. Were they murders? Was Pen involved?
The story is narrated by Pen and opens with her back home from university, in a session with her psychiatrist. There are secrets locked inside her, dark secrets that she is reluctant to tell. Write them down, he suggests.
All These Perfect Strangers alternates between Pen’s life at university and the past. In her debut crime novel Aoife Clifford uses Pen’s journal entries and visits to the psychiatrist as narrative tools. The story is told in the first person, which, in some ways limits the reader’s insight into many of the characters. Pen’s mother is depicted as a down-and-out small-town single mother who manages to attract losers into her heart. One of the regular characters in Pen’s university circle of friends is a gay Asian man called Toby. On several occasions throughout the story the reader is reminded that Toby is an Asian gay man, yet little more is revealed about him. He is one of the warmest, most likeable characters Clifford draws, and it would have enhanced the story if the reader got to know him a little better. It is difficult, however, to achieve this when writing in the first person.
Crime fiction in Australia is a genre that will welcome a rethink of the formulaic novel. There are numerous ways to tell a story, yet for many years there has been a reluctance by writers to experiment. It is refreshing to see an author challenging this, and All These Perfect Strangers is anything but formulaic.
To begin with it shuns the notion that every good crime novel needs to have a strong sense of place. This is a brave move. It is obvious at the outset that this novel is set somewhere in Australia, yet all the reader is told is that Pen comes from a small country town and has moved to a bigger place to go to university. Some readers will be confronted by this. Was it a deliberate omission by the author? An invitation to readers to place themselves in any town they chose and embark on their own journey? For me it was difficult to overlook. I fell in love with Henning Mankell’s work in large part because it took me to Sweden (a country I love) without getting on a plane. The attraction of Scandinavian noir, for me, is not hard-to-pronounce names, but becoming immersed in the landscape, culture and psyche of a foreign place. I like to feel I’ve been somewhere new, or somewhere familiar, when I close a book, but the lack of place in this novel left me feeling as if I hadn’t been anywhere.
However, the crime element of the story is strong. We learn about all three murders that Pen found herself close to, and are given enough hints of the whodunnit variety to be able to pursue some intriguing red herrings. From the outset we are trying to answer the biggest question: was Pen, who is an unreliable narrator, involved? Is the story she is telling the reader the truth, or is she lying to us – or to herself?
The tension and pacing in All These Perfect Strangers is strong and, at times, subtle. There were moments when I needed to read ‘just one more chapter’ without really understanding why. Perhaps, in part, it was due to Clifford’s prose:
Blood, dirt, river, shower, this night, everything disappeared down the drain. I wanted to be washed away.
This is Aoife Clifford’s debut novel. It is taut, beautifully written and surprisingly sad. I highly recommend it.
Aoife Clifford All These Perfect Strangers Simon & Schuster 2016 PB 288pp $29.99
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.