Young writer Anna Snoekstra successfully manages to take her reader into the claustrophobic small-town mentality of regional Australia in Little Secrets, her second novel after her highly successful debut novel Only Daughter.
Colmstock is a town down on its luck. With factories closing and job opportunities few and far between, young barmaid Rose Blakey dreams of being a journalist and getting away from the town that is stifling her. There has been a spate of arson attacks; the latest burnt down the council chambers and resulted in the death of a young boy with an intellectual disability. There is also an ice epidemic and squatters occupy many of the empty dwellings. Poverty and boredom are a recipe for disaster.
Rose lives with her mother who has remarried and had three more children. Her stepfather has decided it is time for Rose to move out, but she cannot afford it on her barmaids pay. Rose is very attached to the youngest child Laura who like several other young girls in the town receives a macabre china doll which closely resembles her. Left anonymously on the doorstep, the dolls bring in the involvement of the police, led by inept Sergeant Frank Ghiradello who is sexually attracted to the lovely young Rose. They are now on the search for the perpetrator. Is he a paedophile? Rumours abound.
What Anna Snoekstra does very well is create a sense of atmosphere. We read futility, inertia and of time standing still. We can feel the humidity and understand the frustration of our young female protagonist as she fights to find her place in the world. In an attempt to get her journalistic voice heard, Rose sends an article off to a hack newspaper. It is published and they want more. But it must be compelling and gritty stuff. What can Rose do to get a story out there? Will she take risks that might endanger her own life in order to be taken seriously?
The characters could be the people in our very own communities. The redneck attitudes, the closed thinking, the rivalries and the sense of desperation all reach boiling point as the heatwave in the town continues. A stranger moves into one of the hotel rooms at the tavern where Rose works with her friend Mia. Rose is fascinated by him, but he keeps a low profile. It is also the same pub where the local police hang out as they try to find the “paedophile” who is leaving the dolls. When he starts sending them chilling notes about his intentions, the tension mounts even further.
The book is well structured, with the thread of building strain holding the reader’s attention. The characters are believable and yet the malice and small-town nastiness are quite shocking as events build towards a climax. Rose must choose a path that will give her a meal ticket out of the town, but at what cost to her integrity and to the solving of the crimes being committed. It is “Aussie” to the core; the sense of time and place, the language and the characters. The ‘little secrets’ are there to be uncovered, but when they are, they may not be welcomed by those they will expose. This was a great read, slightly unpolished but compelling enough for me to read way into the night.