In her acknowledgements section of The Secrets of Strangers, author Charity Norman talks about sitting in a café and glimpsing the idea for this book. Given the premise and the setting it is hard for a Sydney-based reviewer not to think that some of this idea came from very real events in December 2014, known as the Lindt Café Seige. There are deep and fundamental differences between that event and the action of The Secrets of Strangers, but it just feels just a little odd that it is not mentioned or referenced.
A normal morning for a group of locals is turned upside down when a man comes into London’s Tuckbox café with a shotgun and shoots the proprietor. While some patrons escape, the shooter barricades the remainder in and holds them at gunpoint. Among these hostages are those that the reader has met – a homeless former teacher called Neil, a lawyer called Abigail, and a Rwandan grandmother called Mutesi who is trapped in the café with her grandson Emanuel. The action is then also told form the point of view of Eliza, the lead hostage negotiator, who has her own family issues to manage, and one of the employees, Rosie, who is hiding in a cupboard.
The Secrets of Strangers is a siege book, but it does not ever go the way that the reader might expect. In fact, Norman does her best to upend reader expectation at every turn. As the plot moves on, the hostages start to tell their own stories, partly to pass the time and partly to try and connect with Sam, the gunman. And slowly, Sam’s story also comes out. Sam’s full story and his relationship to the man he has shot is infused with a depth of sadness and nuance. Despite his drastic response, the reader is left conflicted as to just how to feel about the situation.
Somewhere along the line The Secrets of Strangers ceases to be a thriller and becomes a drama of human relationships – of the complications, decisions and compromises that make up any life. Of disparate people finding connection under trying circumstances and realising not only that nothing is black and white but that they have the power to help each other understand and overcome their issues. So that while the siege goes on, rather than ramping up, the inherent drama of the situation diminishes. But by that time readers are likely to be invested enough in the characters to not really care.
The Secrets of Strangers uses a strong, seemingly simple hook to set up a story that is complex and compassionate. The stories that sit behind the main characters are in many ways familiar ones. Yet Norman makes them unique both in the way in which they are told and the way her characters’ pasts informs their actions and responses. So it becomes a case of come for the siege, stay for the catharsis, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.