In 2013 Aoife Clifford was awarded an Australian Society of Author's mentorship to help bring this debut novel - ALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS - to fruition. To be fair to those who have read it and are finding the idea that this is a debut novel hard to believe, she has form. Shortlisted for the UK Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger, Clifford won the Ned Kelly / S.D. Harvey Short Story Award and a Sisters in Crime Scarlet Stiletto. What she has now produced is an assured, clever and profoundly disconcerting psychological thriller.
In the manner of all good slow burner, tightly controlled psychological suspense novels, ALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS is beautifully crafted. Told from Pen's viewpoint it combines the tantalising prospect of an unreliable narrator, or a past too dreadful to be revealed. By taking the reader straight into the life and mind of young Pen Sheppard as she is about to leave her small hometown, her difficult mother and a fraught childhood behind, heading for University and life within the walls of a typical residential college, the reader is immediately dragged straight into a relationship with this character. And it's discomforting to know so little about somebody, and yet be so intimately involved.
The narrative itself switches between the present of life in the College as she sets out to build a new life, start again, move on from a secret that nobody needs to know about and the alternative present of her "other life" where she is under the care of a psychiatrist - dealing with something from her University days that possibly has longer term and more deep seated elements behind it. As she tentatively makes friends, and the group settle into life in College, they party and they get to know each other - exactly as you'd expect from people this age. Then things implode with a series of attacks on the campus, and a dead student who may or may not have succumbed to a dreadful accident.
An exploration of truth, and presentation, ALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS really does throw harsh lights on the perception of teenage life. The hesitancy with which the truth of Penn's background is revealed matches beautifully with her personality. The shakiness of the quickly formed friendships is as revealing as the way that edifices start to crumble. The good and bad start to reveal themselves (and it's not all bad), all of which exactly as you'd expect of a group of "perfect strangers" thrust into close proximity, the tension heightened by the threat of an unknown attacker. In this instance even the use of "perfect" in the title is exquisitely nuanced. Are they "perfect" people or will they always be "perfect strangers", is what you see really what you get, or are the persona's they have all constructed as deep and difficult as that which Pen hides behind?
It is a slow burner though, and you may start out profoundly confused about what's going on and why, but it is a very short trip from there to not able to put it down territory. As you'd expect from something this complex, layered, and confronting not everything is wrapped up in a neat bow, as it most definitely should never be. There's so much in ALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS that is open to interpretation that it's only right that the reader is likely to be left with as many questions as answers.
This review is part of a blog tour organised for the release of ALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS. For the other reviews: