We are in a small town called Clearwater on the coast of England. Time – the present day, just before Christmas. Grace Goodwin, a young woman in her early thirties lives alone with her young daughter Matilda, as her husband is currently working abroad. Grace is a native of the town, but in her teens she was taken to Australia by her parents. Now, she has returned to England, and has sought out the company of her best school friend, Anna Robinson, who lives in the town with husband Ben and their child, Ethan. One evening, Anna invites Grace to join her – and her more recent friends, fellow school-gate-mums Nancy, Rachel and Caitlyn – for a girls’ night out in a local pub. It doesn’t go well for Grace. She feels cold-shouldered, and leaves. The next day she is told that Anna didn’t return home the previous evening.
After a few days, Anna does return, and her reason for leaving provides one of the many clever twists in the plot . What follows is a complex – but intriguing – narrative, concerning an event which happened years earlier, when Grace and Anna were teenagers. Another girl from their class – the very cool and rebellious Heather – was found dead at the foot of one of Clearwater’s imposing cliff faces. Who was with her that night? Who knows the truth now, and who is prepared to reveal it?
The main stresses that begin to cause fractures in the the relationships between the characters are friendship, jealousy and control. I am sure it happens between male friends, but perhaps not with the intensity of the bond between teenage girls. If those bonds are retained – and tested – when the girls become adults, then sparks can fly, as they seriously do in this book. This is tense and nervy stuff which explores the dark world of childhood friendships, lies – and death, as did Heidi Perks’s previous novel Come Back For Me (click to read the review).
The escalating tension between Anna and Grace, and – for us – the uncertainty of what actually did happen on that fateful evening back in 1997, makes for an unnerving read. There is a kind of catharsis at the conclusion of this story, and it brings to mind a phrase we were encouraged to sneak into our ‘A’ level essays on Milton’s Samson Agonistes – “all passion spent.” Suffice to say, for Grace and Anna the story pretty much ends where it began. Without over-egging the pudding, I can say that Heidi Perks (below) has written something which bears all the hallmarks of a classical tragedy, in that people who are not inherently evil, but have serious character flaws, pay an extreme price for their faults.
The author gives us mainly the viewpoints of Anna and Grace, but also uses the mothers outside the primary school as a kind of Greek Chorus filling in parts of the action with their own observations. Perks also has great fun with the ‘unreliable narrator’ trope and keeps the reader guessing right until the end of the novel. The Whispers is published by Century and is out now as a Kindle. It will be available in paperback from 15th April.