Book review: All These Perfect Strangers by Aoife Clifford

For troubled teenager Pen Sheppard, university offers the chance to run away from all she has ever known and begin life as a new and reinvented person.

Friday, 2nd September 2016, 2:07 pm
Updated Monday, 5th September 2016, 11:41 am

But the past has a way of catching up… and by the time Pen’s dark secrets have been revealed, three of her friends will be dead and only she knows why.

Step inside Australian author Aoife Clifford’s complex and compelling debut novel and you will be gripped from the intriguing opening lines, through a swirling sea of slow-drip revelations and on to a tense and haunting final act.

Challenging, tightly plotted and brimming with tension and mystery, All These Perfect Strangers unfolds through the tantalising diary entries of our classic unreliable narrator Pen, whose testimony may be a truthful mirror of events… or the fallacious account of a deadly, inveterate liar.

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It’s 1990 and final year law student Pen Sheppard is under the care of a psychiatrist who wants her to write down the tumultuous events of the last three years that have brought her to his consulting room.

She had been only too glad to leave the small town where she lived with her single mother, her mother’s succession of ‘sponger’ boyfriends… and some dark secrets that she hoped were now firmly in the past.

At first, college life seemed like the escape she had longed for, a wonderland of exciting new friends, wild parties, sex, drugs and maybe even love. But within six months of starting at the university, relationships had been betrayed, her secrets revealed, three of her new friends were dead and Pen no longer knew who she could trust.

Emotionally and physically trapped by secrets and lies and facing a deadly dilemma, Pen now has the chance to come clean but, as she freely admits, ‘this story could be told a hundred different ways.’ So is she telling us the truth?

Written in spare but beautifully crafted prose, Clifford’s riveting first novel – set in an unspecified location but speaking to a universal audience - plays games with our perceptions of both a narrator’s role and the familiar expectations of a crime novel.

With limited insight into the motivations and actions of the principal players, and our reliance on the untrustworthy Pen as a guide to both past and present, the emergence of hidden truths becomes a gripping series of shocks and revelations.

Innocence and guilt, trust and betrayal, honesty and dishonesty become a moral maze as Clifford draws us inexorably toward a clever, complex dénouement which leaves plenty of room for thought long after the last page has turned.

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £7.99)