It is every parent’s nightmare. The thought of something bad happening to their child. ‘The Darkest Secret’ opens with an email, a plea to help try and find little Coco Jackson, a three-year-old who has disappeared from her father’s property in Sandbanks. She was seemingly taken from amongst a cluster of other small children, including her twin sister Ruby. Her father, Sean, slept through it all, recovering from a heavy weekend of partying for his 50th birthday; her mother, Claire, was at their home in London. Both are subjected to suspicion and hatred from the public, but none more so than Claire, who is criticised by all manner of internet trolls for abandoning her children and allowing the tragedy to happen.
Ten years later, and Sean Jackson, now on wife number four, is found dead in unusual circumstances. As Mila, his daughter from his first marriage, and remaining twin Ruby travel to his funeral, Ruby begins to question the stories that her mother has told her about Coco and what really happened. She has been fed a series of lies and she wants the truth, and it falls to Mila to give it to her before they are faced with the ghosts of the past.
Sean’s death and the subsequent funeral, brings back together the very people who were in Sandbanks that fateful weekend. As the pressure of being under one roof mounts, the cracks in their story begin to show. What power does Jimmy Orizio hold over Sean Jackson and the others that they would continue to support him all these years? What secret does he know that he is threatening to reveal to the world? And why, amongst his possessions, does Sean Jackson hold a small gold bangle, a christening gift from the Gavila’s, one which matches perfectly the very bangle Ruby still wears today.
As the shocking truth is finally revealed to Mila, she has to choose where her loyalties lie. To her father, the man who ignored her for most of her life; to her sister Ruby, a girl she is only just beginning to know and whose life has already been dominated by so much loss; or to poor little Coco, the silent victim in this sorry, sorry tale.
It is very hard to know quite how to feel about this book. Not because of the writing or the plot; far from it. It is more because of the overwhelming cast of characters who manage to be superficially charming and yet unbelievably vile in equal measure. When all of the main players are more absorbed in their own petty worries and social standing than in the welfare of their children, it is hard to get to like any of them. And yet, in spite of this, you are compelled to read on, perhaps because you are unable to believe what you are seeing.
Sean Jackson is a vile man. His misogynistic view of his first two wives, his racist opinion on immigrant workers such as the ones next door and his pathetic attempt at being a father, one whose children take second place to his own pleasure, make you fail to care for his plight at all, no matter how tragic. It is almost a relief to know he has died so early in the book. His second wife, Claire, also fails to garner much sympathy at the start although you may find yourself feeling something more for her towards the end, whilst still remembering that, ultimately, she played a role in the tragedy which unfolds.
And it is clear from chapter one, that what happened to Coco is not what all the early witness statements would have you believe. That there is far more to the tale than meets the eye. And you would be right. All is revealed as the story moves back and forth from the fateful party weekend, to the current day. It is told from several points of view, but none of the voices you hear are any more sympathetic than the next.
The supporting characters are very well written, each with their own fatal flaw, so skilfully detailed on the page. From addiction, be it sex or substance and alcohol abuse, to the chillingly detached sociopathic tendencies of one of the children, these are people who you most certainly do not want to know, and yet cannot stop reading about. The politician, the Doctor, the Lawyer, the PR maven and the property tycoon. All have reason to need the truth to stay buried but it is the clinical detachment of Maria Gavila which may shock the most. There is a reason that she is the one person to stay in touch with everyone over the years and you cannot help but question if somewhere, somehow she doesn’t know the full, shocking truth, so cleverly concealed and only revealed in the very last pages. Up until then, you can still, in part, believe this was nothing more than a tragedy with a very ill thought out resolution.
Comparisons will be drawn, naturally, with other high profile child abduction cases where the parents have a (and I will choose my words carefully here) ‘non-traditionally accepted’ approach to child care. And this is why I have struggled with my feelings about this book. It is extremely well written and I cannot say enough how much I want to slap some, heck, nearly all, of the characters. And, oh, the frustration I felt at the end knowing there would be no justice for poor little Coco.
And that is why I give this a big fat 5 stars. Any book which leaves me with such a feeling of frustration has done its job and done it well.
Thanks to Net Galley and publishers Little, Brown Book Group UK for my copy of ‘The Darkest Secret’ in exchange for my review
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