As a child I used to try and make a good book last forever. I still remember the dismay when as an eight-year-old I was forced to accept that Treasure Island had come to an end. Now, from time to time, that feeling, like a literary madeleine moment, returns.
Well, it came back with DD Johnston’s The Secret Baby Room.
Johnston constantly surprises with this novel. In what seems like a slow start, you find yourself pulled into what you think is going to be a strong psychological thriller. And you are, because it is – but soon it becomes so much more. Multi-layered characters abound and an increasingly pacey plot runs alongside, detailed, but not detracting, back stories.
The book opens with Claire Wilson, a young woman who has recently miscarried, quit her job and moved to Manchester with her Mancunian husband Dan. Their new shiny housing estate is in the shadow of an empty, ugly, due-for-demolition tower block. While unpacking a box in the spare room, Claire glances up and sees a woman bottle-feeding a baby high up in the abandoned building.
As the book’s blurb asks: ‘Why would anyone take a baby into a derelict tower block? And why is her next door neighbour so determined to delay the block’s demolition? In a Manchester neighbourhood plagued by unexplained tragedies, Claire’s only allies are an eccentric white witch, a wild-child party girl, and a husband with too many secrets.
‘In ten days’ time, the tower block will be reduced to rubble and dust. Do you look the other way or do you dare to push open the door?’
At first, Claire’s determination to get to the root of the mystery has the reader on board. Gradually, you begin to wonder if it’s all in her mind. The series of weird events, evil-looking graffiti, black magic altars in a derelict building, a series of miscarriages in the shadow of a phone mast; all is not what it seems. The same can be said of the characters whom Johnston introduces with broad strokes. When Claire’s wacky hippy-dippy neighbour Morgana Cox enters, this rosehip tea-drinking, pentangle-wearing, Wiccan priestess and mother to Mooncloud and Unity makes for high comedy.
As the story unfolds, however, there are surprising and shocking revelations at every turn. Nobody and nothing is what it seemed at first. Johnston keeps the reader guessing and the broad strokes become smart, fine, revelatory details that fuel a classy thriller, replete with versatile revelation and a talent for surprising the reader.
And Johnston deftly threads moments of humour into his thriller narrative. In a book that could have easily fallen into schlock-horror, this writer manages to keep the reader on the back foot, constantly surprising, both in narrative and character development.
This is Johnston’s third novel. The others (The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub, (Barbican Press, 2013) and Peace, Love and Petrol Bombs (AK Press, 2011) were obvious in their political force whereas The Secret Baby Room’s political and cultural themes are woven into a driving narrative like dye in cloth.
In this fine novel, Johnston is an examiner and a questioner, rather than a polemicist. The result is a mix of thriller, satire, and cultural examination, seamlessly contained in a thumping good story with a great denouement.
Most importantly, I quite simply enjoyed The Secret Baby Room and was dismayed to reach the end. I can pay it no better compliment. My eight-year-old soul wanted the drama to go on.
As a reader I was given a treat.
As a writer I was given a skills demonstration.
By Brian W Lavery
Main image by Chris Payne
Dr Brian W Lavery is a writer, journalist and creative writing tutor based in Hull. His new book The Headscarf Revolutionaries (Barbican Press, 2015) is out now and available through Amazon and all good bookshops.
To read DD Johnston’s article about the genesis of The Secret Baby Room on Northern Soul, click here
The Secret Baby Room by DD Johnston (Barbican Press, 2015) is out now in paperback and on Kindle