The Secret Baby Room is a tense and compelling psychological thriller. Claire Wilson's investigation leads her not only towards the dark knowledge of past crimes but towards an understanding of the damaged lives of those around her. Johnston offers us a wonderfully gripping read, but also a compassionate and moving story of people struggling to survive at the margins of a rapidly chancing city.
This is my first novel by this author. Whist the main theme of the book can be red at one level there are in face multiple levels of this novel and indeed the characters themselves.
I was interested in the premise of this book yet I found it quite hard to get into. I prefer books that grab me from the get go and don't release me from their grip until the final word. In contrast, I suppose, like any good psychological book, this is slow to boil. But once it gets going it rolls log quite well.
The main theme of the book echoes the personal pain of the female protagonist Claire (to find out that what this is you will have to read this novel) which seems to cloud people's perceptions of her. Claire, a determined and driven woman, is trying to come to terms with her tragedy and the compelling need to make new friends in her new neighbourhood. Yet the reader is constantly at odds with the narrative. Is what Claire sees real or not?
Aside from Claire this novel contains a colourful cast of characters (as far as they go – we never really get their full details), as one would expect on an English street. They include a Wiccan and her rather wayward family; a graffiti artist and an alcoholic with various issues (we never really know about our neighbours in England as we just normally smile at them across the street/garden fence).
In getting to know the neighbours and the onward story the reader is never really sure who is good and who is not. Who can be trusted and who cannot. It could also be a case of if you are told something often enough you start to believe it. As in any British neighbourhood the characters, when you start to get to know them are quirky and understated.
Everything in this new neighbourhood is shadowed by the tower block that is about to be demolished. And therein emerges the basis of this good but predictable psychological thriller, but that seemed to suit this novel. Although this reader enjoyed the English slang (and spellings) this could conceivably put off some American readers, why I am not too sure to be honest – we Brits have to read enough of their novels with incorrect spellings and strange slang! I, a Brit myself, personally loved this and the procedural happenings.
This novel is woman centred novel with enough red herrings and twists to keep the reader hooked and interested until the end. Although this reader would have liked an epilogue just to find out what happened to the Baby of the novel’s title.
The first portion of the book deals with Claire, her relationship with the neighbours and the setting in general. As is typical with some British novels this one was quite slow to get to the boil. It is not a novel one should attempt in one sitting.
As with the women, the novel is multi layered which are all explained in the first part of the novel which makes the pacing slightly slow especially for our American cousins Overall this is a dark, tense emotional thriller with enough red herrings to keep the reader interested but is maybe too intelligent from some American readers.
In short this is a novel of feminism where Claire had to deal with her own transformation from societal norms. It followed her through the friendship of an alcoholic. But it was also a case of if you hear something often enough you tend to believe it. It contrasted what was expected of a woman and how that woman wanted to be viewed. Female empowerment is a great motivator in this novel. All that said, this reader, in particular, is glad that the husband eventually realised what was what and stood by his woman (albeit rather reluctantly).
If you are up for a challenging, thought provoking read this is one for you.
Full Disclosure: I received a free copy from Netgalley for an honest review.
I rated this 5 stars on Netgalley and 'I liked it' on Goodreads (3 stars) and Amazon (4 stars).