The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman – 2020

The secrets of strangersPeople are caught up in a hostage situation in a London café.  At the heart of the crisis are five people, they hear each other’s stories, they form a little community in the centre of the chaos – and the reader gets drawn further and further into events.

A rough sleeper with a tiny windfall and a lawyer on her way to defend a client decide to start their day with a coffee from Tuckbox; a carer from a rest home coming off a night shift goes there to meet her daughter-in-law and grandson.  The café owner is attractive and friendly with all his customers, all are fond of him and sad for him, as he has recently lost his wife, Harriet, to cancer.  Harriet’s son, Sam, calls in to the café, and then leaves.  Everyone’s day is unfolding as usual – until Sam returns …

I won’t say anything more about the plot, as it unfolds cleverly through the book, and the reader is always on edge wondering what will happen next.  The plotting is great, but what is at the heart of this novel that keeps the reader engaged, are the characters, and their slowly revealed stories.  Neil is a rough sleeper, his dog, waiting for him outside the café, his only friend.  He was a teacher and an addiction has led to his life on the streets.  Abi, the lawyer, is motivated, a ‘problem-solver’, and trying to cope with a series of unsuccessful fertility treatments.  Mutesi, the carer, is the opposite of Abi, she is considered, gentle and caring, and her memories of the Rwandan genocide drive her empathy and her fear.

Outside in a room down the street is the police negotiation team, and Eliza is the police negotiator.  Eliza has her own problems, an increasingly intolerant husband, especially since the arrival of a second child, her socially awkward elder son …  But nothing would get her to change her job, her “chance to reach into the tragedy and change its course.”  Of course, negotiating is like “defusing a bomb: cut the wrong wire, use too much force, and it could be all over.”  And the tension and coffee consumption continue to mount up in the negotiation room.

In the café, the feelings that they are all there by pure chance and the anxiety to leave, slowly change with the cups of tea and plates of café food: “Now we’re travelling together for a while.”  Some of the characters start feeling they might be there for a purpose, that they are part of the problem, could be part of the solution.  Abi realises at once point: “She can’t possibly be bored.”  They begin to establish a community, and they hear each other’s and Sam and Robert’s stories.

Each person in the café finds their inner strengths, and their connections to each other.  For Neil: “It’s been a long time since another human being has looked him in the eye, called him by name and voluntarily touched him.”  For Mutesi she feels she might finally know why she had been spared, her chance to show that no matter how bad things seem, there is always something worse and always a chance for redemption.  The tension moves from her Rwandan experience of “Every moment laden with the threat of death” – to the lower level but deeper tension of helping a man struggling with his own actions, and how his frustration might not end up hurting those around him, but himself.

Sam is a complex character, haunted since losing his father, haunted by a two-faced puppet that scared him as a child, haunted by the memories of his own temper.  We feel his regrets and his uncertainty: “Three paces, swing around, three paces, swing around”, and his ‘wired-ness’ builds as he knocks back Ritalin pills.  And we are with him when he realises that “he likes all three of these people” and that he’s “really trashed the changing room this time.”  Robert’s back-story is one of the most chilling descriptions of passive aggressive behaviour and gaslighting that I have ever read.  We experience how people’s initial judgements of people and situations can be so inaccurate.  And the awful dullness of not knowing what will happen, Abi: “She’s watching the setting sun touch the face of a murderer.”

The atmosphere is great, the tension is compelling and there is humanity in dollops, and I urge you to read The secrets of strangers!

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