Cover of book: The Secrets She Keeps

Michael Robotham
The Secrets She Keeps

It’s amazing the airs trash fiction gives itself these days. The latest effort by Michael Robotham exploits the neat unstartling idea of a woman who works in a supermarket who steals a newborn baby of a posh woman she befriends. It has plenty of tension and drama but it is so long and so slow moving, so massively preoccupied with the power of its own articulation, that it’s an open provocation to watch Netflix instead.

Indeed the American Crime shocker about a group of basketball boys at a preppy school in Indiana run by Felicity Huffman had all the pity and terror and grandeur of verisimilitude that Robotham aspires to but can’t really reach. It’s not that he can’t write, it’s not that his subject isn’t interesting in a sordid kind of way, but he is no “Tolstoy of crime” – never mind that this James Ellroy vaunt is a bit of an oxymoron anyway.

The two women meet and the working class one is all friendliness and the other upper-middle-class expectant mother of two is all radiant modulated egalitarianism. Needless to say they both have backstories. The working woman was battered about by Jehovah’s Witness bigots, had a baby plucked from her for adoption and has indulged in this kind of caper before, whereas the A-lister hasn’t too many sins or unhappy memories to tow behind her, though there is the complication that she cheated on her loving husband just once and there’s a possibility her squeeze is obsessed with the idea that he, not the husband, is the father of the third child she is bearing.

By contrast, Supermarket pines for a brute of a sailor who’s spent his bit of lust and is far from wild at the news that she’s got one in the oven (though she hasn’t) when she tells him on Skype. 

Nothing wrong with this except that we have to endure Robotham setting it all up for a hundred pages or so of drivelling detail that’s a just-bearable alternative to reading cereal packets but isn’t remotely in the same ballpark as Trollope – or, if you like, Wilkie Collins – and it really needs to be if we are to trust the fantasy of some deeper logic that will make this terrible action the explicable outgrowth of a credible human complexity.

This is the way crime is treated – almost in the manner of an alternative Greek myth – in some of the Chabrol movies, but in this case the effect is tedious because the world of the circumstantial is just so much soap.

The posh woman, who writes a blog about motherhood, used to work in journalism. She once interviewed Jude Law. Did he flirt with her, asks the kiddie snatcher. Well, he wouldn’t look at her now, says Posh. As you do. As she would.

There is nothing particularly wrong with this book except that there’s so much of it and so little of the much there is contributes to our understanding of the action, let alone creates the glowing strangeness or the glint of authenticity that betokens art or any of its slack delicious cousins.

Robotham came to longer form narrative by ghosting the memoirs of Ginger Spice and there’s a sense in which that combination of close-up and personal anecdote and a lot of air is characteristic of his approach to fiction.

He’s such an easy read and The Secrets She Keeps will certainly keep you going if you’re not too concerned with the point of arrival, though it’s just a bit boggling that no one had the patience to cut this bit of mother’s club mayhem by at least a third, probably in half.

Some of the exposition is lame and improbable. Some of it reeks of life at its most rank and unexamined. Maybe Robotham’s long bland continuities in combination with occasional hard knocks from the Worst Things in the World is our age’s parallel to the rhythms of Sir Walter Scott, who is supposed to be exactly adjusted to the monotonies and disjunctions of travel by carriage.

God help us if it is. Robotham is a writer without much in the way of style, which is fair enough because it can produce a windowpane effect that is transparent on a terrible action, as it is in Dostoyevsky. The Russian’s journalistic technique represented, in James Joyce’s opinion, the invention of modern prose – a prose exactly fitted to the effect of drama through the medium of fiction – hence the rest of Dostoyevsky’s transfiguration of melodrama in the direction of tragedy.

It’s not hard to see how a transfigurative wizard might have done this a bit like Robotham because he juxtaposes madwoman with sane woman, working woman with well-off woman, scarifyingly deprived woman with privileged woman, in chapter after chapter, in a way that is attractive if you are sufficiently sucked in to begin with. And who knows, perhaps a Chabrol figure could make something of the potentially powerful juxtaposition of a working-class woman’s rage to love and a haute-bourgeois woman’s anxiety to hold on to the love she has with the idea and the actuality of a baby as the central pivot and coveted object of the action.

It’s a rather brilliant idea, though there’s the palpable risk of a ghastly lapse of taste, given the way motherhood – unless you’re the Shakespeare of Macbeth – isn’t something to mess with.

Well, Michael Robotham is a former journalist of vast and attested savvy whose first thriller sold a million or more copies. This one edges in the direction of Liane Moriarty and it might be significant that Robotham now lives in Sydney. Perhaps crime writing itself is getting more overtly maternal and womanly in its preoccupations.

Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman did dark and wonderful things with the TV version of Big Little Lies, so perhaps The Secrets She Keeps will do the trick for people despite the high proportion of bathwater to baby, of faffing and chaffing to dark deeds, in its articulation.  QSS

Hachette, 448pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2017 as "Michael Robotham, The Secrets She Keeps".

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Reviewer: QSS

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