Top critical review
An Edifice of Lies
on 21 December 2015
The (to begin with unnamed) middle-aged narrator of alternative chapters of Susan Elliot Wright's second novel has what appears to be a lovely life: a nice house in Sheffield, a happy marriage to amiable vet Duncan, a good relationship with adult daughter Hannah (not Duncan's child, but as good as) and a successful career. Then, she receives a letter from Hannah's father Scott, who hasn't seen his daughter since babyhood. Scott is dying, and wants to meet his daughter before it's too late. More importantly, he wants the narrator to tell the truth about something from their past, when Hannah was a baby. But the narrator knows that if she does so, her whole life and her relationships will collapse. But what is this secret? We begin to find out through the alternate chapters, narrated by a teenage girl called Jo. Jo's mother dies of alcoholism when Jo is only 17, leaving her with nothing. Jo drifts away to London, where she meets Eve, an aromatherapist, market trader and jewellery maker. An instant rapport is established, and Jo moves into the squat that Eve shares with her boyfriend Scott in Hastings. But can this menage a trois carry on long-term, particularly as Jo and Scott are attracted to each other? When Eve becomes pregnant, the atmosphere becomes increasingly tense, building to a startling and completely unexpected incident...
Writers who become popular with their first book have quite a challenge - the 'market' expects them to get out Book Number 2 very quickly, and for it to be equally successful. Often, I've been told, this is the point when a writer resuscitates a previously unpublished novel. I'm not sure whether or not Elliot Wright did this here, but - though it has many virtues - 'The Secrets We Left Behind' felt a less polished book than her first novel. There were rather too many Terrible Incidents to be believed - particularly in Jo's childhood, when Elliot Wright seemed determined to heap as much misery as she could on her young heroine's head. Jo seemed to have no idea that there was anyone - beyond hostel owners - that she could go to when she wound up broke and alone in London (did the Citizens Advice Bureau not exist in those days, or some equivalent?). The whole false identity theme was a little fudged, with no explanation over what happened with passports, dates of birth, identification papers and the like. In another scene, two seemingly kind and decent people carry out an extraordinary act of abandonment. I also didn't believe the heroine could have lived with her secret for all those years without having some sort of a breakdown, or at least confessing to Duncan. The novel also didn't quite have enough plot for its length, which meant that there were a lot of scenes that didn't really go anywhere - lots of vaguely romantic prowling round each other for Jo and Scott that never quite got resolved, a rather vague subplot about Hannah's fertility treatment and post-natal depression, endless debates between Scott and the narrator about whether she should tell the truth. It all seemed to be building up to a grand finale which - bar the one shocking thing that happened in Jo's life - never quite happened. And Eve remained a bit underdeveloped as a character, I'd have liked more of her.
On the other hand, there was some excellent material in the book. Eve's grieving for her family and retreat into a world of herbal healing, meditation and New Age philosophy was moving and convincing, and Elliot Wright vividly captured the young Jo's confusion at her life with Eve and Scott, even if she did at times seem a bit gormless for a smart girl. There were some fine descriptions of Hastings and the sea, and a vivid sense of foreboding as the narrator wondered about when her secret would be revealed. And bravo to Elliot Wright for not going for a traditional OTT happy ending with everyone hugging each other and weeping, but something tougher and more believable.
I didn't feel the book quite worked, but on the other hand I did enjoy a lot of it, and felt that it showed this writer has a great deal of potential. I hope she gets a bit more time to write Novel No.3 - I'll definitely read it.