We love it when we discover a stunning new voice in crime fiction, and even more so when that voice is an Australian one. All These Perfect Strangers is more than a gripping crime novel; it’s an intriguing and thought-provoking read.
Pen Sheppard is from a poor and vulnerable family – brought up by her mother and a series of her mother’s dodgy boyfriends. The novel begins with Pen at a psychiatrist’s office in the small country town where she grew up, as she recalls the bizarre series of events that happened during her brief stint at university. There’s also an allusion to another dark occurrence a year before. But Pen is an unreliable narrator – she is remembering things as she sees them, but how much is really true?
Both incidents are teased out throughout the tense narrative. A few years earlier a policeman was murdered in Pen’s town. A friend of hers was found to be guilty of the crime, but what was her own involvement? When Pen, an intelligent girl, wins at a place at university soon after, it’s the perfect chance to reinvent herself among ‘all these perfect strangers’. But this opportunity to escape her dark past continues to be thwarted as terrible things keep happening around her and she’s always in the wrong place, at the wrong time. During her first few months at university not just one, but three people are killed. Pen is connected in some way but how much is she responsible?
All These Perfect Strangers is full of questions and it reminded us of that other great campus novel, Donna Tartt’s, The Secret History. All These Perfect Strangers throws up moral dilemmas and questions of guilt and innocence. There are no absolutes and nothing is black and white in Pen’s world – ‘everything has threads, even if you cannot see them’ she tells us. We sympathise with her, but we want to find out why she acts the way she does. What is her role is in all the terrible things that happen to her? Why doesn’t she speak out? And how much of her sad, vulnerable and disadvantaged background is responsible for what happens to her?
Clifford presents humorous and realistic depictions of the various campus characters that Pen meets – there’s over-privileged, good looking but weak Rogan, the disturbed serial liar Rachel, the feminist protest organiser Leiza, the geeky-but-slight-creepy-no-friends Michael, and blokey Joad, to name just a few.
This is the stunning debut novel from Aoife Clifford’s that fans of her short stories have been waiting for. She has won two major Australian crime writing prizes for her short fiction – the Scarlet Stilletto and the S.D. Harvey Ned Kelly Award. She was shortlisted for the UK Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger and was awarded an Australian Society of Author’s mentorship for All These Perfect Strangers. Born of Irish parents in London, she lives in Melbourne with her husband and three children.
Aofie Clifford is a name you’ll want to remember. And if you’d like to tell all your friends about this novel – and you will – but aren’t sure how to pronounce Clifford’s Irish name, don’t worry she helpfully tells on her website – it’s pronounced Eefa (similar to Eva but with an f instead of the v).