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- The Cartography of WolvesApril 22, 2021
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Family secrets provide fertile ground for authors of psychological thrillers and crime novels. On some level, perhaps we all like to think there might be an intriguing mystery in our own family. Often when people start researching their family tree, they’re hoping to unearth something they didn’t know about. And the rise in the number of people completing DNA tests for ancestry websites suggests plenty of people are prepared to risk finding out family secrets.
What are they not looking for? The sort of family secret which, once unearthed, could put present family members in danger, or risk tearing their family apart—which is why authors love to tap into that fear of secrets with the power to destroy a family.
I was inspired to write my novel The Last Thing She Told Me after my 92-year-old grandmother hinted that she had kept a secret for much of her life. Sadly, she died before she revealed anything more than a suggestion that she had suffered a loss of some kind, but it made me think about the sort of secrets many women of her generation took to their graves.
During my research I came across newspaper stories about families who had discovered human remains after their female relatives had died. In one case, the remains of several babies were found in shoe boxes in an old lady’s wardrobe following her death. Clearly for some women, the shame heaped on them by society was too much to bear.
I decided to tell the story of four generations of the same family, and what was fascinating as I researched my novel, was that I realized it was not just older women who had been made to keep secrets, but plenty of younger women too. And where women have been made to feel that their secrets would bring shame on their family, the stakes become that much higher.
The Last Thing She Told Me begins with Betty telling her grand-daughter Nicola that “there are babies at the bottom of the garden,” moments before she died. Nicola is left wondering what she could have been talking about. But when her own daughter discovers a bone while playing in Betty’s garden, she knows that something sinister has taken place and has to decide whether to tell the police and risk the secrets from the past tearing her family apart.
The discovery of human remains also feature in The Witch Elm by internationally bestselling author Tana French, who examines how the discovery of secrets can leave people questioning everything they thought they knew about themselves. After being subjected to a horrific attack, traumatized Toby takes refuge at the Ivy House, his family’s ancestral home.
But not long after Toby’s arrival, a discovery is made: a skull, tucked neatly inside the old wych elm in the garden. As detectives begin to close in, Toby is forced to examine everything he thought he knew about his family, his past, and himself.
Other authors have examined how hard it is to discover that family members, who you thought you knew well, have kept secrets from you. In Sister by Rosamund Lupton, Beatrice’s sister Tess goes missing. Beatrice flies home to London but as she tries to piece together her sister’s last movements, she realizes that the secrets Tess had kept are preventing her from getting to the truth. What Beatrice doesn’t know, as she sets out to find Tess herself, is that those secrets are also going to put her in danger.
Daughter by Jane Shemilt also looks at how difficult it is to accept that a much-loved family member has kept a major secret from you. In this case, it is mother Jenny whose teenage daughter Naomi goes missing. As the police hunt intensifies, Jenny discovers that her daughter had a secret life she knew nothing about, that is hampering the investigation. But sometimes secrets are meant to be kept and discovering the truth can be devastating for all concerned
Stone Mothers by Erin Kelly focusses on a mother who is desperately trying to keep a secret from her daughter. Marianne Thackeray fears that if her daughter Honor, who has a history of mental health problems, discovers the truth about her past, it could destroy her.
But two other people from Marianne’s past association with Nazareth Hospital know her secret, and one of them is intent on going public with it to bring the other down. As Marianne becomes entangled with her past, her relationships with her daughter and husband are put under increasing strain. The only question she has left is whether the inevitable revelations will destroy her family, as she fears.
For Anna Johnson, the central character in Let Me Lie by Clare Mackintosh, it is the secrets surrounding her parents’ deaths – both supposedly by suicide but exactly a year apart—which are tormenting her. Anna is convinced there is something sinister behind the deaths and is desperate to get the police to re-open their investigations. But it seems that Anna’s parents were also keeping secrets from her and it is getting harder and harder to know whose version of “the truth” to believe.
In A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine (a pen name of the much-lauded late crime writer Ruth Rendell), Faith Severn attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the life and death of her aunt Vera. Vera was a respectable woman who committed a crime so terrible she was hung for it. Faith has to try to establish what secret could have caused her mother and aunt to have fallen out so badly. And whether Vera was born a killer, or whether someone drove her to it.
Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter tells the story of Andrea Oliver, who thinks she knows everything about her mother and her past until a trip to a shopping mall results in an act of violence which reveals a completely different side to her mother Laura.
Daughter Andy suspects that her mother, now hospitalized, has kept a big secret from her and sets out to try to uncover the truth, fearing both of them are in huge danger.
Sometimes, keeping a secret about one member of the family can put another one at risk. The Pact, by S.E. Lynes, focuses on Toni, whose 15-year-old daughter Rosie is fighting for her life in hospital and unable to reveal what happened to her.
Toni is terrified for her daughter’s life. Having lost her husband in a tragic accident, she has dedicated her life to keeping Rosie safe from harm. She needs to know what secrets Rosie has been keeping, and how she ended up in a hospital bed – but Toni has a secret of her own. Thirty years ago, she and her sister Bridget made each other a promise: never to speak of their childhood; to protect each other without asking for help from others, no matter what. But in order to save Rosie, Toni may have to break her lifelong promise to her sister and open doors to her past she hoped would remain closed forever.
Little Face by Sophie Hannah focuses on a web of secrets within a family. When Alice Fancourt returns home from her first visit to the leisure club since her baby was born, she discovers that her daughter has been taken from her cot and another child left in her place.
As the enormity of what has happened hits home and the police are called, she has only her husband David and domineering mother-in-law Vivienne for support. But are they both hiding secrets of their own?
In The Husband’s Secret, Australian author Liane Moriarty explores how discovering a secret can destroy family relationships. When Cecilia finds an envelope in the attic, with “to be opened only in the event of my death,” written on it in her husband’s handwriting, she knows she shouldn’t open it, but can’t resist the temptation. The letter inside reveals a secret big enough to wreck her family and the lives of others. But keeping the secret may destroy her marriage.
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Readers show no sign of losing their appetite for stories of family secrets which leave characters desperate for the truth, and often in danger. And with such a wealth of family dynamics and trauma to explore, novels about family secrets will no doubt continue to feature in the crime and psychological thriller bestseller lists for many years to come.