The Secret Baby Room by DD Johnston (Barbican Press, 2015)
As a child I used to try to make a good book last forever. I still remember the dismay when as an eight-year-old I had 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 (Barbican Press 2015).
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.
You are pulled further in by multi-layered characters, an increasingly pacey plot, running alongside, detailed, but not detracting, back stories.
The story opens with Claire Wilson, a young woman who has recently miscarried, who has moved into her new home in Manchester. Following her tragedy, Clare, a southerner, quit her job and moved with her Mancunian husband Dan, whose new job is in his native city. Their new shiny housing estate is in the shadow of an empty, ugly, due-for-demolition tower block.
Claire was in the spare room of her new home, unpacking a box when she glances up and sees that high in the abandoned tower block that a woman is bottle-feeding a baby.
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?’
Claire’s determination to get to the root of the mystery at first has the reader on board, then you begin to wonder if it is 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, are not all what they first seem.
The same can be said of the characters. Johnston introduces with broad strokes. When Claire’s wacky hippy-dippy neighbour, Morgana Cox, the rosehip tea-drinking, pentangle-wearing, Wiccan priestess and mother to Mooncloud and Unity, enters the story it is almost high comedy.
As the story unfolds, however, there are surprising and shocking revelations in turn. This is the case with all the characters. Nobody and nothing is what it seemed at first. Johnston keeps the reader guessing. The broad strokes become smart, fine, revelatory details that fuel a classy thriller.
When the true character of a graffiti artist who has been daubing the estate with a series of sick tags is revealed, again Johnston shows his capacity for surprise and versatile revelation.
Johnston deftly weaves moments of comedy 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 well into a driving narrative like dye in cloth.
The political Johnston in this fine novel is an examiner, a questioner, rather than a polemicist who would detract. 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 it ended so soon for me. I can pay it no better compliment. The eight-year-old in my soul wanted the drama to go on.
As a reader I was given a treat.
As a writer I was given a skills demonstration.