This is about three deaths. Actually more, if you go back far enough. I say deaths but perhaps all of them were murders. It’s a grey area. Murder, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. So let’s just call them deaths and say I was involved. This story could be told a hundred different ways.
When Pen Sheppard wins a university scholarship that spirits her far from her small country town, she thinks she’s leaving the secrets of her past behind for good. But Pen’s not the only one at Scullin College with a secret history, and when she finds herself linked to a series of suspicious deaths on campus, she starts to question how well she knows her friends and who, if anyone, can be trusted.
All These Perfect Strangers is a darkly twisting thriller in which no one, including the narrator, is who they seem.
I was giddy with excitement to read All These Perfect Strangers. I wrote my Ph.D. thesis on what I term ‘campus clique crime novels’ (think Donna Tartt’s The Secret History), and one of the things I looked at in my research was the sub-genre’s lack of female protagonists and Australian narratives. So when I found out about All These Perfect Strangers, EPIC BOOK NERDIGANS ENSUED.
The story opens with Pen returning to her hometown to meet with her psychiatrist following the deaths of several students at her college. Her doctor asks her to use her time between their appointments to write about what happened at Scullin and then asks her to read from her journal in their sessions. However, Pen is selective in what she chooses to share:
All good liars tell the truth most of the time. Today, I am lying the easiest way of all. I am telling the truth selectively. I make my excisions razor sharp.
I liked Pen. She’s sly, manipulative and selfish, but she shows Moxie. I also love an unreliable narrator, but with Pen, it’s difficult to determine just how unreliable she is. It’s never clear how much she’s actually withholding from her psychiatrist or, for that matter, the reader. And if she is misleading the reader, to what purpose? In The Secret History, narrator Richard Papen confesses to ‘a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs’. Like Humbert Humbert, he uses what David Lodge terms ‘special pleading’, to enchant the reader and reframe the heinous as something ‘beautiful’. Richard is unreliable because he wants the reader to see his friends as shining heroes and glosses over anything that presents them in a less than perfect light. In short, he has a clear agenda and his unreliability makes sense. Pen’s motives aren’t so straightforward. If anything, her unreliability, or, more accurately, the questions she provokes around her unreliability, make it difficult to invest in her story because the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of her deception remain unclear. In fact, on the whole, I felt Clifford devotes too much of the narrative to deceiving her reader when she might use that space to draw them in.
Her plot is ambitious. It twists and turns as Pen edges her way around what really happened at Scullin, what she and her best friend, Tracey, did when they were fifteen and why she can’t let the police discover the truth. I enjoyed the story overall but found it needlessly complicated. It almost feels as though Clifford is working with two different stories: the story of the girl who did something awful as a teenager and can’t escape her past and the story of a girl who finds herself implicated in a series of suspicious campus deaths. In the campus portion alone, there’s supposedly a ‘screwdriver attacker’ hunting down women on campus at night, the Murder Game where students earn points for ‘killing’ each other, a drug-related gang war, people sneaking around in Scullin’s secret passageways in the dead of night and the Master ‘call-me-Marcus’ offering shady ’employment’ to ‘special’ students. The rising body count could be related to all or none of these; there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. And that’s only half the story.
Pen is guarded about her past, and it makes sense that she keeps the people around her at arm’s length. However, this also makes it difficult for the reader to get close to the characters and they come off somewhat flat—a problem compounded by the fact that there’s a large cast to keep track of. Toby, Kesh and Rachel are Pen’s closest friends at Scullin, although Rachel makes it clear from the start that she’s not to be trusted. Leiza is the do-gooder type who’s always trying to rally everyone around a cause, while Joad is Scullin’s resident misogynist and Michael is a shy first year who hangs around the fringes of the group. Pen has a crush on an older student named Rogan who may or may not have ties with the Death Riders, a gang of student drug dealers who dress in black and unofficially run the campus bar. The Death Riders have a rival gang who dress in white, carry teddy bears and call themselves the Marchmain Club (boy, did I get excited when they showed up). They’re headed up by a guy named Nico who’s highly protective of his girlfriend, Alice. Scullin’s Master, Marcus, seems to have tabs on everyone, despite it being his first semester at Scullin, and is definitely up to something fishy. Finally, Pen befriends Dale, a mature age student/police officer in one of her law topics. And that’s only the characters Pen meets at university. Phew! Each of these characters harbours a secret and has a role to play in the crimes that unfold, but there’s so much misdirection that the story begins to feel unfocused.
Some details also seemed implausible. What are the chances of a teenager who’s already been involved in a murder case enrolling at a residential college where students start showing up dead within weeks of her arrival? How are the higher ups at the university not more concerned by the rising body count? For that matter, how is it not nationwide front page news? Why do the drug dealers wear costumes and carry teddy bears a la Sebastian Flyte? (Be still my bookish heart, but it doesn’t exactly exude stealth.) Why does Pen lie to the police when Rogan asks? In fact, why do all her brain cells fall out every time he shows up? Why does the Master gad about in a linen suit and Panama hat like some 20th-century aristocrat who took a wrong turn on his Continental Tour found himself in early 90s Australia? Why don’t the students show a measure of concern when it becomes apparent that someone’s picking them off, one by one? All these niggling questions kept pulling me out of the story and made it difficult to suspend my disbelief.
I loved the ambiance of All These Perfect Strangers, the hot house vibe at Scullin, the splashes of anglophilia (even if they were somewhat inexplicable), the festering secrets threatening to resurface, but it lacked that mounting claustrophobia I love in stories of this kind. The reader’s attention is too divided, and it’s not clear what’s at stake. Pen doesn’t want the deaths at Scullin to lead the police to start poking about in her past. However, the reader doesn’t know what Pen’s secret is or what the consequences will be if the truth comes out. It makes it difficult to pick up the pompoms and show some pep for Team Pen. She makes a lot of noise about losing her scholarship and having to drop out of uni. But then, why wouldn’t she apply for HEX, rent a room in a share house and get a part-time job to support herself like the vast majority of Australian students? It seems as though all she’d be giving up is her place at the residential college, and she doesn’t seem particularly attached to living there.
Overall, I felt that too much remains unknown for too long, and the question marks hanging over the narrative work against the tension rather than enhancing it. That said, All These Perfect Strangers it’s an impressive debut—darkly playful and full of unexpected twists—and I’m keen to read more of Clifford’s work.
Thank you to Simon and Schuster Australia for providing a copy of All These Perfect Strangers in exchange for an honest review.
Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up 11 critical issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!
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