British author Stella Duffy is a prolific writer with 15 novels to her name. She is also a versatile one, having explored crime fiction (in the Saz Martin series) as well as historical and literary fiction.
While the five novels in the Saz Martin series – starring the titular female private investigator – were cleverly written, who-done-it page turners, the same cannot be said of Duffy’s non-crime fiction works.
Though her prose may be lyrical and filled with vivid imagery, and her plots full of unexpected stings, I have to say that I find the bulk of her work rather dense, and sometimes, dare I say, even positively impenetrable.
Patience (and a thesaurus) is needed to get through books such as Eating Cake (2000), Immaculate Conceit (2000), and 2012’s The Purple Shroud.
The last has very clever prose that I would’ve appreciated better if it had been further edited. The casual reader may not have the patience or desire to wade through paragraphs of beautifully crafted words when the subject matter can be described in two sentences.
So, as a follower of Duffy’s work, I felt waves of excitement – as well as much trepidation – when news of her return to crime fiction broke.
Needless to say, my expectations were high….
The protagonists of The Hidden Room are Laurie and Martha, a couple that seems to have it all: three great children, a beautiful home in the English countryside and, after years of struggle, a successful career in the form of Laurie’s architectural practice finally taking off in a big way.
Also, despite their less-than-conventional family set-up, everyone in the village has taken to Laurie and Martha, always offering friendly smiles in greeting.
So everything in Laurie and Martha’s world seems perfect. But as readers of crime fiction and thrillers well know, if things are perfect, something must be amiss somewhere.
Quite early on in the novel, Duffy lets her readers know that Laurie had an unusual childhood. She was born in China, then adopted by Americans and taken to the United States.
Her adoptive parents are timid people who don’t – or can’t – do much to shield the young Laurie from the cult they live with in the desert. Or from the cult’s charismatic leader, Samuel, with whom Laurie has an intense, complicated relationship.
The most fanatical of the followers often tell the young Laurie that she can never leave them. If she did, bad things would happen to her….
Fast forward several decades and Duffy introduces us to Laurie’s new world with Martha, a world in which she loves her partner and her children and enjoys her increasingly successful work as an architect.
However, she can’t quite shake off the influence of her difficult growing up years, and glimpses of them seep into her perfect present, sometimes threatening to engulf her in fear and guilt.
When the darkness shows its face, Laurie manages to suppress it in her hidden “room”. Here, Duffy cleverly uses a real room – hidden in the attic of the couple’s house – as a metaphor; in Laurie’s case the metaphorical room is used to store the baggage of her past, helping her to get on with her life, and leaving Martha none the wiser.
But the room cannot contain everything, and it is not long before a shadow lodges itself persistently in Laurie’s present, threatening to reveal family-destroying secrets to Martha.
Duffy handles the weighty topic of cults – which can also be seen as the fanaticism of religion – very deftly, showing us how such a religious set-up and life can rob a person of reason and logic, and how the emotional and mental scars caused by such beliefs being forced upon the unwilling can have a life-long negative effect.
Kudos to Duffy for not passing judgement on those who volunteer to be part of a cult; in the novel she merely implies that some people find comfort in being part of an organisation that dictates how they should live their lives.
Though The Hidden Room has been touted as a crime novel, I feel that it leans more towards psychological thriller territory.
The closest it comes to being crime fiction is in the ending: It has an unexpected twist that left this reader feeling both nauseated and amazed at the cleverness of the plot, and rooting for Laurie even though she is a somewhat difficult (and perhaps purposely unfriendly) individual. This is pure Duffy at her best.
Beautifully written, psychologically taut, and with a plausible plotline, The Hidden Room is a return to page-turning form for Duffy. The novel can sit proudly with Duffy’s early crime fiction output.
Fans of those works as well as anyone who enjoys crime/psychological thrillers will definitely enjoy The Hidden Room.
A highly recommended read.
The Hidden Room
Author: Stella Duffy
Publisher: Virago, crime fiction