All These Perfect Strangers
Aoife’s Clifford’s debut novel, All These Perfect Strangers, centres on flinty Penelope Sheppard, who escapes her boondocks town of small-minded people for a new life at university. College life is meant to be a clean break from a horrific event in her past that is initially only hinted at. Instead, she’s soon linked to three deaths.
Pen, a law student, is never quite telling the whole truth – not with the reader, not with her friends, and not even with herself – and this self-defence mechanism makes her fabulously hard to read. Is she being manipulated or doing the manipulating? There are also several villains and while some of them share Penelope’s complexity, others have so few redeeming features they come close to caricature.
All These Perfect Strangers starts slow and it takes a while for the first murder to take place. Despite that, the early pages are tight with a tension that gradually builds to fever pitch.
Despite the occasional weak characters, Clifford is a good crime writer. Switching forward and back in time, she allows the plot to unfold in glimpses. The reader turns pages not only to find out what happens next, but to discover what Pen has already been through.
The writing is tight and controlled when it needs to be, which suits the uneasy atmosphere of her story. And Clifford’s accounts of bumming around campus wrapped up in everything but study will strike a chord with anyone who remembers their early uni years clearly. All the talk of broken hearts, busted friendships and student politics reflects a story of a bunch of young people in over their heads.
Her best writing is reserved for descriptions of Pen, damaged by trauma yet determined to survive. In Pen’s voice, she writes: “I would take this terrible thing and tuck it away deep inside me where I kept all the other terrible things. Locked away for good.”
Clifford studied arts/law at university and it shows. Her story urges us not to simply wonder whodunit, but to reflect on how the law operates – as opposed to how it should. Who gets to be believed? Who gets a second chance? This is as much a treatise on class, gender, privilege and power as it is a crime thriller. That Clifford manages to convey all that via a gripping murder yarn is testament to her skill as a writer. LL
Simon & Schuster, 288pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 19, 2016 as "Aoife Clifford, All These Perfect Strangers". Subscribe here.