You don’t have to believe in ghosts for the dead to haunt you.
You don’t have to be a murderer to be guilty.
Within six months of Pen Sheppard starting university, three of her new friends are dead. Only Pen knows the reason why.
College life had seemed like a wonderland of sex, drugs and maybe even love. The perfect place to run away from your past and reinvent yourself. But Pen never can run far enough and when friendships are betrayed, her secrets are revealed. The consequences are deadly.
‘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 leaves home, taking a bus to her new life at university, her mother doesn’t even bother to say goodbye – instead, it’s her mother’s latest boyfriend that drops her at the station. When she arrives, fellow students can’t believe she has only one suitcase – and shows a gullibility beyond that of most new students. You know this because she tells you, writing in a journal her psychologist has encouraged her to write. It has all happened in the past and it is her version of events – something even she admits – though she says this version is the truth.
As a reader, you have to decide if it is – the truth – or if it’s a story to gain your trust and your sympathy, both of which Pen seems to think it’s important to gain as she slowly reveals why she is visiting a psychologist and why she is writing a diary. The reason is death – it seems to surround her. Her college friends died and her best childhood friend is in prison after killing a police officer. In both instances, Pen says she is an innocent bystander but – with so much death surrounding her – you have to wonder if that is the case.
As far as a plot goes, this sounded like a good one to me. I was eager to read the book and imagined plenty of twists, turns, red herrings and questions – my type of story. Unfortunately, I got so many twists I couldn’t keep up and, at least two weeks after finishing the book, I still am not sure exactly what I read or what I was supposed to get from the story.
The main problem for me was how it was told. There is Pen in the present, talking to her psychologist and sharing snippets of her life (having moved back at home after the murders of her friends), the Pen of the past writing about her life in college, and the Pen of the past past, writing about her friend’s murdering of a police officer. Then there’s the story Pen is telling her psychologist, which is different from her diary and which she admits isn’t the truth. Confused? I was.
Normally multiple threads don’t bother me and I like unreliable narrators. I am used to books that hop between past and present or have more than one voice telling the story and I love having to find out the truth – it keeps you engaged as a reader. Here though I didn’t know where I was in time and whether I was reading Pen’s diary or hearing her speak to her doctor. Part of the reason was that there was no break in the chapters to let me know the voice had changed. Text in italics or dates to head up the chapter would really have helped. Instead, I kept backtracking to try and figure out where in time I was.
As soon as I start doing that I lose the connection to the book, it takes me out of the story, and that is what happened here. I found that I really didn’t care, about Pen or what happened to her or her friends. If I’m honest, even if it had been easier to follow, I may not have cared anywhere because I didn’t like any of them. I really couldn’t find anything positive in their characters – they were all selfish and self-centred – or anyone to relate to. I think I was supposed to feel sympathy for Pen and understand how her behaviour in college was impacted by the death of the policeman but it took so long to get to the “what happened” there that I couldn’t pull anything back.
For all that, it wasn’t all bad. The first third wasn’t bad and I did find myself drawn in. I did want to know what happened and did see myself enjoying the book. However, as more secrets were revealed I just couldn’t keep up as I said and so my enjoyment turned to frustration, partly because I feel like there is a good story in here – I just couldn’t find it. A bit of a shame but it happens and does mean that this one wasn’t for me – sorry!
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK
Publication Date: 25th August, 2016 (first published 1st March, 2016)
Format: ebook (Kindle)
Genre: mystery, thriller
Find on: Amazon UK / Amazon US / Goodreads
Sounds like this one has the potential to be a good one, but I am not a fan of how it seems to have been written, that gets confusing. 😦
I had high hopes. Still, you win some you lose some 😀
What a shame – the premise sounds promising. I suspect the odd narrative could have worked if you’d cared about the characters, but if you don’t then really the whole blessed thing is somewhat doomed…
You are probably right. I might have been more willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.
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There are times when I seem to be able to follow along and other times like this where I just start getting confused and frustrated.
It’s hard when you have to go back and check things…. it breaks the flow of reading.
I’m sorry this one didn’t work for you but I appreciate your honest review.
Me too…you can’t love every book though!
That’s too bad! I really liked the basic premise but I’m not a fan of constantly having to recheck the timeline to figure out what’s going on. There are enough really good thrillers with unreliable narrators to waste time with this one.
It was and I agree, too many good books out there to read.
[…] Thursday, I reviewed All These Perfect Strangers by Aoife Clifford, which I really struggled with thanks to multiple timeframes and an unreliable narrator that I just […]
[…] All These Perfect Strangers by Aoife Clifford, a book I had such high hopes for but that just left me confused and frustrated as the story moved back and forth in time – maybe if I had liked the characters more I would have been more forgiving but this just wasn’t for me. […]
Oh dear… This title is coming up soon on my #TBR for review. Sure hope I like it more than you seem to have. Despite this, I will try to read it with an open mind. Once before I read a book that didn’t warn you when the voice was changed – and I managed to like it despite my occasional frustration. https://fictionophile.wordpress.com/2016/04/14/the-stopped-heart-by-julie-myerson/
I do hope you have more luck than me. I definitely doesn’t get back reviews on goodreads but I just couldn’t get away with it. I had such high hopes too!