The trouble with trying to review one of Ms. Hillier’s novels is that it’s extremely difficult to do so without spoilers. The latest is no exception, but I’m stubborn.
First, although I wanted to be empathetic with the protagonist, Marin Machado, the simple fact is that she’s not terribly likable. Of course, one suspects as the plot resolution approaches that’s how we’re supposed to feel, but it could just be me. Ms. Hillier’s characters are always painfully human, so it’s logical to react to them as if we were meeting them at a party and drawing our conclusions on short acquaintance.
Marin is doing some last-minute Christmas shopping at a crowded farmer’s market with her 4-year-old son Sebastian when she receives a text from her former lover and trusted best friend Sal. She lets go her son’s hand to respond—and he’s gone.
This is, as we’re reminded many times as the book progresses, is every mother’s nightmare. Marin’s guilt at having let go of a small child in a crowd is certainly justified. Her reaction to it is to essentially become the center of a universe in which anyone who doesn’t display an emotional level equal to her own is dismissed, never mind that her perception of those reactions is entirely narcissistic. No one can possibly suffer as much as she does.
The somewhat predictable effect of this nearly a year and a half after Sebastian’s abduction slowly evolves into a web of lies and betrayals that Ms. Hillier is so adept at weaving. Nothing—and no one—is what we think it is, and yet as the story advances one begins to suspect. Whether those suspicions are correct you’ll have to read to the end to discover.
I suspect many people will have a different reaction to Marin, and that’s why Ms. Hillier’s fiction is so compelling. Far too often in genre fiction the themes and tropes are so well-known we simply react on reflex. That’s not possible with Small Secrets, and that makes all the difference between a good book and a compelling one.