The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman

Allen & Unwin | 2020 (7 May) | 352p | Review copy (ebook) and bought audiobook | Buy the audiobook | Buy the treebook

It is a weekday morning and people have places to be, except for Neil, a former teacher who now sleeps rough on the streets beside his dog Buddy. He wakes up to discover money in his begging cup and so he takes it along to Tuckbox Cafe in Balham, London. Shots are fired and the cafe’s owner Robert is gunned down, dying in Neil’s arms. Most people escape, fleeing for their lives, but a few remain and they become the hostages of the shooter, a young man called Sam. Mutesi is a nurse, who fled Rwanda, and is now trapped with her grandson whom she was taking to school, Abi is a barrister on her way to defend a young woman accused of harming her children, and then there’s Neil, who has lost everything. All of them must try and reach Sam, to save themselves. Outside the cafe is negotiator DI Eliza McClean, whose job it is to get everyone out alive.

The Secrets of Strangers is my second audiobook ‘read’ and I found it an engrossing listen. I have heard some good things about this novel and so I was looking forward to it. It has a fantastic premise and I enjoy action thrillers that take place over just a few hours, almost as if events are taking place in real time. The start is excellent. I really enjoyed meeting Neil and was gripped by witnessing the shooting through his eyes. Chapters then move between each of the characters – hostages, shooter, negotiator – giving us a fully rounded portrayal of what goes on in a siege situation, practically and in the minds of those who must survive or work for the survival of others, including the killer.

It’s all very tense and I quickly grew invested in the characters, especially Matusi, Eliza and, unexpectedly, Sam. However, towards the middle of the book I realised that I knew exactly how this was going to go and found the time spent exploring the back histories of each of the characters dissipated the tension and left little room for surprises. I would have liked far more of Eliza, a character I really enjoyed, with enormous pressures on her shoulders. As the novel progresses we spend much more time in Sam’s head. I found his story extremely painful to read, too painful, actually. Credit must be given to an author who can trigger such a strong reaction in their reader but I was relieved when we were returned to the present day in the cafe.

The Secrets of Strangers is a powerful, disturbing read, that is more character-driven than I expected. The audiobook is quickly paced, the narrator rushes through it, distancing me more from the characters than I think I would have been if I’d have read the words on a page. Nevertheless, I was so keen to find out how it all ends and the final chapters of the novel are utterly engrossing.

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