Secret Lies - Amy DunneThis is an excellent and enthralling first novel. Amy Dunne has caught the mood of 17 year-old emotions and experience brilliantly.

Jenny is one of those popular girls who appear to have it all. She is attractive, put together, confident. The other girls want to be her, the boys want to have her. But underneath the false bravado is a mess. She blames herself for the death of her adored Gran, hates what she has made herself into and the never-ending pretence to keep it up. She hates herself to the point of self harm. She has sought help, but that doesn’t stop the feelings, doesn’t stop the pain.
Nic is the outcast. Wearing her winter uniform in a heatwave, ostracised as an oddity, she doesn’t mix, doesn’t integrate. She is bullied and abused by the girls at school. She feels invisible. But under the long sleeved top she hides a terrible secret, one of violence and abuse. Away from the nastiness of teenage girls she is fighting for her very survival.
Nobody would ever expect these two 17 year olds to be friends. They inhabit polar opposite places in their social world. But a chance encounter makes Jenny reach out in kindness, revealing to Nic that there is another side to her from the shallow, selfish bully. And as Jenny coaxes Nic to open up a friendship starts to form.
Nic is the observant one, more sensitive to other people’s emotions. Soon she recognises that Jenny also has a secret. And although it takes her a while to break through, her gentle persistence eventually allows Jenny to open up for the very first time.
As their friendship develops so does their attraction. Thrown together by an accident, they quickly become each others’ strength. Together they can escape from the secrets and lies, from the pain they have both suffered.
They both know that ‘coming out’ is a huge step. They plan to keep their love secret while they sort out their lives. But Jenny’s bitchy and dominating older sister, alerted by her spies, comes home for the very purpose of removing Nic from Jenny’s life. When she discovers that Nic is a lesbian, she uses every means to separate and destroy them.
Will Jenny fight for her new found love, fight to be the person who is emerging from under the brittle façade or will she cave in to the social pressure and bullying older sister? And while Jenny is deciding who she wants to be, can Nic hold on to hope for a future and stop the abuse to reclaim her own life.
This is an excellent and enthralling first novel. Amy Dunne has caught the mood of 17 year-old emotions and experience brilliantly. On the one hand it is a tale of young adults emerging and exploring, with all the angst and melodrama that entails. On the other it is a serious exploration of both abuse and self harm and the impact they have on these girls’ internal and public lives.
The two main characters are wonderfully complex and layered. They are still children, investigating life and love, finding their sexuality and passion, learning who they are and who they want to be. But they are also adults, at least partly because of the secret pain they both suffer and the growing up that has caused.
What we see is the juxtaposition of those – the young adult emerging and trying to balance their teenage hormones and dramas with adult sensibilities and emotions. One minute they are falling in love and in lust, they next they are sulking and fighting like children. They both understand the pressures of their social world, but are not yet quite sure how to manage it and be themselves.
The story resonated with me. Despite being old enough to be their parent it brought back memories of those angst filled days. The pain of falling in love, the fight to be oneself, to create a space and a separate identity whilst still wanting and needing parental support and love.
Ms Dunne’s portrayal of the abuse was hard to read. I can’t speak to its realism as a survivor, but it felt all too real. Nic’s internal fight to stay alive, stay sane, stay together under the brutal mental and physical torture was intensely emotional. And Jenny’s self loathing and self abuse was extremely well written, along with her Rizzo-like shell and underlying vulnerability.
The book flows. It is well written and well crafted. The dialogue is realistic. It is a well paced story which kept me reading into the night. As well as the teenage melodrama of first loves and social pressure the novel contains real tension.
There are places you can see the pain about to descend and almost want to stop, but were dragged forward waiting to see how these two girls would survive, if they would survive.
There are also ongoing and layered peaks and troughs. Jenny and Nic face emotional battles coming to terms with their new sexual identity both internally, between them and with family and friends. At the same time they are facing a literally physical battle to stop Nic’s abuse, and in the build up and aftermath there is real fear for the outcome.
My only criticism, and this is minor, was that Elizabeth’s complete reversal from Bible-bashing super-bully bitch to supportive sister was hard to believe. Unlike Laura and Jack who are lightly drawn and allowed to develop their natural goodness, Elizabeth’s transformation feels forced.
Her ‘protective’ excuse for her overbearing behaviour is not enough to explain her extreme volte-face. In retrospect she was, perhaps, too viscously drawn as a homophobic bully to realistically change so completely. But that slight jar does not detract from a wonderful book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, couldn’t put it down. Congratulations to Amy Dunne for an excellent first novel and to BSB for picking it up.
While the American audience will no doubt complain that they don’t understand our school system (we Brits have had to learn yours) I for one am delighted to see a new British talent emerge. Looking forward to watching Ms Dunne develop this gift.