The Daughter’s Secret, by Eva Holland, made me angry. I was angry with the teacher for taking advantage of a vulnerable child in his care. I was angry with the father for being unable to see past his idea of what his children should be. Most of all I was angry with the mother; I was bloody livid with the mother. Well done to the author for creating such an emotive, plausible and compelling story. It kept me up into the wee small hours because I just had to find out what happened next.
When Stephanie was fifteen years old she ran away with Nate, her twenty-four year old Geography teacher. She was unhappy with her home life and had fallen in love. When Nate offered her the chance to start over with him in a far away land she was ready to comply.
Six years later Nate is due to be released from prison having served his time. He will never teach again but this is not enough for Stephanie’s mother, Rosalind. Rosalind wants him to suffer as she has been made to suffer. She imagines scenarios where he is beaten to a pulp, injected with drugs, suffers debilitating, life threatening, grotesque illnesses.
She is terrified that Stephanie, now living in London with her best friend Sarah, will want to see him again. In the six years since it happened they have never discussed why Stephanie ran away or what exactly went on in the days before they were found. As the story unfolds the reader begins to understand why.
Rosalind is paranoid and has been for many years. She allowed random dangers elsewhere to feed her imagination to the extent that she kept her children off school until her husband discovered what she is doing and, ashamed, she allowed them to return. She followed the school coach on an outing, taking her daughter in the car, because she worried that the coach could crash. She imagines objects falling out of the sky and crushing their skulls.
“I had caught a snippet of news coverage about a plane accidentally releasing its cargo of holidaymakers’ luggage into the sea off Spain and hadn’t been able to shake myself free of the fear that it could happen above St Albans. Could a suitcase […] smash through the roof if it fell from a thousand metres?”
Rosalind chews her lips until they bleed, cannot talk because her anxiety drains her mouth of saliva and makes her tongue feel dry and swollen in her mouth. She has panic attacks where she forgets to breath and comes close to passing out.
This is the mother her children have grown up with, in a house where voices are never raised and their father is rarely home from his demanding job in the city.
Occasionally Rosalind catches sight of her daughter in moments when Stephanie is unaware of Rosalind’s presence. There is laughter and chat with her brother, relaxed smiles and casual flirting with her peers. When the story opens Stephanie has been drinking heavily and is brought back to her parents’ house to recover. It soon becomes clear that the family home is no sanctuary. Her father wishes to outsource the problem, to send Stephanie away to rehab that she may be mended and returned as the little girl he wants rather than the runaway he is still unable to countenance. Her mother chews her lip and worries about Nate regaining access to her child.
The tale unfolds during the ten days leading up to Nate’s release from prison, with flashbacks to the abduction. Stephanie needs support yet Rosalind is unable to move beyond her own paranoia. She tries, but always there is a tipping point and she descends into her fears. Stephanie’s upbringing left her vulnerable to a predatory teacher; the guilt she carries for the punishment he suffered has never been assuaged.
I am always reluctant to blame parents for their children’s mistakes. It seems too easy an excuse for what is usually a much more complex set of circumstances. Rosalind undoubtedly loves Stephanie but cannot seem to see her as beyond the baby she breastfed, the toddler she slept beside to ward off bad dreams. When Stephanie bitterly points out that her forty year old mother is flirting with a twenty four year old fellow student at the art college she attends Rosalind is shocked that her daughter can draw comparisons with Nate. Stephanie needs the support of a loving parent but not one who has compartmentalised her as a child.
I enjoyed the penultimate scenes when Stephanie’s relationship with her boyfriend was further developed. The denouement was nicely done but just a tad too open ended to leave me satisfied. I wondered if the family would ever confront their problems or if they would always skirt around issues for fear of the lip chewing and irrationality of the mother. There was a tidying up of the plot, but left in abeyance were many interesting issues around the characters which I would like to discuss. This is the perfect read for a Book Group.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orion Books.
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