The Darkest Secret
Alex Marwood
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Buy *The Darkest Secret* by Alex Marwoodonline

The Darkest Secret
Alex Marwood
Penguin Books
400 pages
August 2016
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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A child abduction story with a twist, Marwood’s The Darkest Secret offers the reader a departure from the author’s trademark horror/thriller tales. Moving back and forth between one long weekend in 2004 to the present, Marwood recounts the events of the 50th birthday weekend of wealthy real-estate developer Sean Jackson. Sean looks at his life--his healthy children and his thriving business and the fact that his wife is a beauty (“even when she’s letting herself go”)--and realizes that he’s unable to be really, truly happy. As Sean whines about how his second wife, Claire, is holding him back in a similar fashion to first wife, Heather, he’s forced to recognize that he’s been put back on “the hamster wheel” of marriage life.

To the public at large, Sean Jackson is best known for the tragedy that overtook his life when his three-year-old daughter, Coco, disappeared from the family’s newly renovated holiday home on Millionaire’s Row, Bournemouth. In the middle of the night, Coco vanished from the ground-floor bedroom she was sharing with her twin sister Ruby. None of the many people in the house admitted to hearing a thing; for her part, Ruby slept through the entire incident. Not a trace has been seen of Coco again.

Twelve years later, Sean’s sudden death of a heart attack while handcuffed to a bed in London’s Mayfair Hotel forces his twenty-something daughter, Mila, into a kind of reckoning. There’s no harboring any illusions about her father nor any dream to shatter. After breaking the news of his death to her sister, India, Mila sets about formally identifying Sean’s body. More unnerving for Mila, however, is how inexplicably consumed with the loss she is, unable to come to terms with a chaotic upbringing spearheaded by a mostly narcissistic and self-absorbed man who never once let personal taste get in the way of profits. In an attempt to bring some kind of order to her topsy-turvy life, Mila reluctantly attends Sean’s funeral, but not before dragging Ruby, her bereaved 15-year-old half-sister, along with her.

Ruby might be total stranger, yet Mila recognizes that she and her stepsister are bound together by their common bereavement. Like little lost Coco, Ruby is set “in amber” in Mila's mind, “three years old forever.” Seeing Ruby again cements in Mila’s psyche the horrible time when she was suspended between childhood and adulthood. Mila was only 15 when “the Coco thing happened” and the whole Jackson family was plummeted from anonymous misery into a kind of total public isolation: “All the things you’ve put to the back of your mind, the things you’ve decided it’s best to just ignore, come creeping back around your barriers.” A child of divorce, Mila might have done her mourning when she was nine years old, but the trip back to Sean’s family home threatens to reignite Mila’s resentment at her father’s selfish choices as well his failures as a husband and as a father.

Although the story often feels weighty, The Darkest Secret adopts a more balanced tone when we get the heart of what really happened to little Coco. We watch, unable to look away, as Sean’s birthday weekend descends into a coke-addled bacchanal where Sean’s assorted guests party, fully complicit in their smug, self-assuming virtue. Claire at first seems blindsided by her husband’s sudden bursts of anger. She sees his friends as boastful and snobbish, no more than walking stereotypes of “Tory manhood.” Beyond the machinations of Sean best friend, Charlie Clutterbuck, and sleazy lawyers Robert and Maria Gavila, Maywood has fun portraying them all as a bunch of “glad-handers and hangers-on.” Meanwhile, pretty little Simone, who had her first dream of Sean when she was seven, shivers at the thought of Sean paying attention to her: “He doesn’t even know I’m alive, he can’t see that I would do anything for him.”

Bathing her subversive novel in a subtle dose of unease, Marwood builds on the stress Mila experiences due to both her reconnection to Ruby, the mystery behind Coco’s vanishing, and Mila’s troubled recollections of her father. Sean is the epitome of the evil, wealthy chauvinist, an uncharitable man who only ever does things that benefit other people if there is “a banquet and an auction involved.” In The Darkest Secret, Marwood proves that she’s once again plugged into the contemporary troubles of abusive, troubled relationships as well as the spiraling fantasies of a twisted and warped teenage mind.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2016

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