Thick red dust heralds the arrival of Aimee McCartney when she blows into the goldmining town of Kalgoorlie during a fierce dust storm. About to start a new job, Aimee’s suppressing a terrible secret as she flees from her painful past in this wonderful debut novel, The Secrets We Keep.
Kalgoorlie in the 1980s faces many problems, but despite this, young social worker Aimee finds a friendly and welcoming community. Her new clients include Kerry and Paul Steele, a couple facing Paul’s imminent death from a wasting lung disease. Knowing the dangers but tempted by the good wages, Paul had continued work in the mines after a dodgy health check. The couple also face the prospect of having to reveal to their twelve-year-old daughter that she is adopted.
Aimee’s friend at work, Lori, is facing her own awakening. Lori is falling for co-worker and ex-priest Patrick, while coming to terms with her budding spirituality, ignited by her friendship with the tea-leaf reader and spirit guide, Aggie.
The whole community is confronted by the rising levels of noxious gases from the town’s mine and the terrible realisation that, despite the employment and money it brings, the effects on public health are disastrous.
At work, Aimee and Lori are discovering more about the town’s past than they’re comfortable with. Aimee’s father is a politician back in the big city of Perth and the more she finds out about what’s occurred in the remote Western Australian desert region – including treatment of its aboriginal communities, even atom bomb testing at Maralinga – the more she presses her father to come clean about his knowledge and involvement.
Kerry, Lori, and Aimee all need to decide what they’re going to do about these discoveries, as well as their own personal secrets. Aimee herself faces a dilemma that she admits requires the ‘wisdom of Solomon.’
The Secrets We Keep is an assured debut that transports us to a turning point in Australia’s cultural and political history. The author, Shirley Patton, is a former social worker who grew up in outback Western Australia. She knows what she’s writing about and it shows in the vivid and moving portrait of a remote Australian town, and its diverse cast of lovable and interesting characters.
Patton handles her themes of social justice, grief, death and adoption with skilled sensitivity, resisting any urge to make simplistic judgments. She looks at the corrupting influence of power and the good and bad that can be found in any political party, while recognising the complexity of the problem the community faces:
‘The workers’ choices were limited and it suited everybody to turn a blind eye, to collude in the process… If you didn’t do the job, then there were ten behind you who would,’ says Aimee.
The Secrets We Keep reminds us of truth’s unwillingness to stay hidden, but above all it’s an uplifting, feel-good read in which the healing power of a loving and supportive community brings forgiveness and new beginnings, as well as hope and healing even for Aimee, whose secret is the darkest of all.
Move over Judy Nunn and Liz Byrski, there’s a terrific new Australian storyteller in town.
Dr Shirley Patton grew up in outback Western Australia and now lives with her partner and a miniature schnauzer, in wine-growing country overlooking the beautiful Tamar River, Northern Tasmania. She left an academic career as a published researcher of family violence and a lecturer to write fiction full time. Since then, she has published several short stories in a variety of literary publications. Prior to practising social work, Shirley worked in the media as a television newsreader and television chat show host. Like one of the characters in The Secrets We Keep, Shirley’s Irish great grandmother read tea leaves.