“This is a fact: Ryan Summers walked into Three Rivers College and killed thirteen women, then himself.
But no one can say why.
The question is one that cries out to be answered – by Ryan’s mother, Moira; by Ishbel, the mother of Abigail, the first victim; and by DI Helen Birch, put in charge of the case on her first day at her new job. But as the tabloids and the media swarm, as the families’ secrets come out, as the world searches for someone to blame… the truth seems to vanish.”
I’m stunned that this is a debut. I’m not at all surprised that it has been nominated for, and won, prizes. I loved everything about this book, the writing, the characters – it is so accomplished that the author has shot straight on to my list of writers that I will be eagerly awaiting more from.
The subject matter of this book is topical but not easy to tackle and the author was very brave to do it, especially as a debut, but she does it with such compassion and consideration and with such a careful balance that she has pulled it off perfectly. The main reason why it works is that it is told from the perspective of three people on every side of the tragedy – the mother of the shooter, the mother of the first victim and the police officer in charge of the case. These different perspectives make us sit and think about the tragedy from every angle and in ways we perhaps don’t think about these tragedies. It is very easy, following these shootings, to consider and empathise with the victims and they families, but the ramifications are much wider and the victims go beyond the families of the murdered children; this book reminds us of that.
The characters in this book are as complex as the issues they are struggling with. The author carefully balances things so that everything is not clearly black and white. The victims are not painted as angels and the shooter not as pure evil because we all know that life is much more complicated and nuanced than that. This is what makes the book so compelling. We all want things to be clear cut, but they aren’t and what makes these shootings so terrifying is that they are often carried out by seemingly ordinary people who displayed no outward violent tendencies beforehand and there is no obvious motives. And to their families who loved them it is especially difficult to accept that their children were capable of doing what they did. These are complicated issue that are hard and unpleasant to face but facing them is necessary to tackle the problem.
The setting of the book is Edinburgh, which I think makes it more immediately relevant for those of us the the UK who sees these things happening at arms’ length in the US where we have no direct connection. It has been a long time since we had a mass shooting in a school in this country thankfully so we may feel that we are immune from the constant fear and horror that regularly hits communities in the States. However, with a spate of gun violence in London over the past few months, this issue is one that is becoming more and more relevant here and we should not be complacent about it. The Edinburgh of the book is not the side the tourists see, but is the every day side with ordinary people going about their ordinary lives, which makes the extraordinary events even more shocking.
This is a book that will make you think. About what motivates someone to commit this type of atrocity and can we ever really know. Is there a way to spot and stop these people before they do what they do, and if not, how far can blame extend beyond the actual perpetrator. About the effects this has on the victims’ families, the wider community, the police and how these people react and can be helped afterwards. And about how we, as onlookers, get our news and how the press report these things. One of the reporters in this book is the most loathsome character I have read in a long time, partly because his actions are believable and, if the portrayal is in any way accurate, we have some very hard questions to ask ourselves about what kind of people we have become if we are willing to tolerate this behaviour.
This is a must-read book, which raises a lot of difficult questions to which there are no simple answers but they are questions that we need to ask ourselves. I know I will return to this book again, and recommend it to my friends as a worthwhile read. I can’t give it a better endorsement than to say that, after reading the ARC, I have gone out and bought it in hardback to add to my shelf.
All The Hidden Truths is out today and you can buy a copy here.
My thanks to NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton for my copy of the book which I have reviewed honestly and impartially.
About the Author
Claire Askew is a poet, novelist and the current Writer in Residence at the University of Edinburgh. Her debut novel in progress was the winner of the 2016 Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, and longlisted for the 2014 Peggy Chapman-Andrews (Bridport) Novel Award. Claire holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh and has won a variety of accolades for her work, including the Jessie Kesson Fellowship and a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award.
Her debut poetry collection, This changes things, was published by Bloodaxe in 2016 and shortlisted for the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award and a Saltire First Book Award. In 2016 Claire was selected as a Scottish Book Trust Reading Champion, and she works as the Scotland tutor for women’s writing initiatives Write Like A Grrrl! and #GrrrlCon.
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