All These Perfect Strangers (Simon & Schuster 2016) is a psychological crime thriller by Australian writer Aoife Clifford. I have been on a bit of a crime spree lately, and this novel is another great debut that presents the narrative through the perspective of an unreliable narrator, thereby multiplying the potential for secrets, lies, misunderstandings and deceptions. The difference in this story is that we know for a fact that the protagonist – Pen – is most certainly lying about some things, if not all; we know that she has been embroiled in a murder / tragedy three years’ earlier; and we suspect that not only may she be lying to those around her, and to us – the readers – but also to herself. This ambiguity is cleverly achieved through the use of some plot devices: Pen has sessions with her psychiatrist, Frank, and we are uncertain of how much truth she reveals to him; Pen writes in a diary, and we know that not only does she not reveal everything that is written in her diary, but her diary has purposely large gaps or absences of information about particular events; and the author’s use of flashbacks. In addition to this, we have the usual crime scenario of a large cast of characters, many potential suspects and / or victims, and a range of possible motives and opportunities.
This book reminded me a little of The Secret History. Set on a college campus, it focuses on Pen as a first-year student negotiating her new life amongst a group of, well, quite perfect strangers. People about which she knows nothing, people with whom she shares no history, all lumped together now in this strange university ecosystem, living and working and studying together, eating and sleeping and partying together, as they all the while attempt to work out who is friend and who is foe, who is honest and reliable, and who is pretending or hiding. Living in a university residential college is a uniquely strange arrangement because you ostensibly have much in common with those around you, but everyone comes from such different backgrounds and circumstances, and nobody really knows anyone else’s backstory.
The flashbacks in the book relate to Pen’s life three years’ earlier and her involvement in a suspicious death. We are gradually dripfed details of this crime, and we have to piece together Pen’s actions, and those of her friends and family. This is simultaneously unravelled while the current events take place – three deaths on campus of people Pen is close to, three deaths for which she may be somewhat responsible or perhaps just feels responsible, three deaths that contribute to the feeling of fear that pervades the story. There are some great characters in the book – I particularly loved Toby – and the rising tension sets up a frightening climax. But the pull of this book is not merely in the plot itself, or the characters, but in the way it makes us question our own story, our own history. It asks us to interrogate our own actions and motivations not only in the light of what has actually happened, but through the perspective of what others perceive to have happened.