Fiction – Kindle edition; Allen & Unwin; 384 pages; 2015.
The publisher Allen & Unwin bill Australian writer Nicole Trope as the “queen of domestic suspense” — and I can see why.
Hush, Little Bird — her fifth novel, but the first one I’ve read by her — is a brilliantly told tale about two women from opposite sides of the social spectrum whose lives are thrust together when both are sent to prison for two separate but shocking crimes.
Birdy is a young women with learning difficulties, who is struggling to raise a daughter on her own; while Rose is a rich woman in her 50s, who was once married to a famous television personality. Now in a low-security prison — “a halfway house between that and the real world” — Rose works in the garden tending the plants and Birdy is in charge of an aviary filled with zebra finches and Gouldian finches. (As an aside, the bird on the front cover is neither species.)
The pair would seem to have nothing in common, yet they were once neighbours when Birdy was a little girl. Rose fails to recognise Birdy as an adult and is unaware of their connection. She’s also unaware that Birdy harbours a desire to do her harm, and the book’s nail-biting narrative hinges on whether or not Birdy’s dastardly plan ever comes to fruition. It makes for a rather fast-paced and compelling read.
The story, which is highly reminiscent of Harriet Lane’s Her, is told from both women’s viewpoints, with Birdy and Rose taking it in turns to narrate alternate chapters. This allows us to get a glimpse of their mindsets — Birdy, who has been labelled stupid her whole life, is aware of her limitations but is also a lot sharper than many might give her credit, and Rose, married at 16 to a handsome actor, has spent her whole life subsumed by someone else’s personality.
Their individual back stories are slowly fleshed out so that over the course of the novel the reader begins to piece together the puzzle of each character’s troubled life.
But this isn’t just your average run-of-the-mill tale of suspense: Trope deals with some important and contemporary themes, which lends the story some weight (albeit with a slightly voyeuristic twist), and which could well have been lifted from today’s news. For instance, Rose’s husband Simon, who once hosted a children’s talent show in the 1970s, is accused decades later of horrible crimes against the children who appeared on screen (think Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris here in the UK):
When the second woman came forward to accuse Simon of touching her when she auditioned for My Kid Can . . ., we waited for the interest to die down as quickly as it had after the first woman. But it didn’t. This time the media grabbed hold of the story and it began to appear everywhere, and then more women came forward with the same allegations. Articles appeared in newspapers and on the internet. Websites were set up to condemn Simon, and an equal number of them were set up to support him. Journalists began to call the house, first during the day and then at odd hours, hoping we would pick up. We had to change our phone numbers. News vans took up residence outside the house. Letters and emails arrived, some wishing Simon dead and others wishing him luck.
Shocks and surprises
Despite the fact I’d guessed most of the major plot “reveals” before they happened, it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of this entertaining book which held me in its sway for two rather intense days and nights. Trope really knows how to keep her readers on tenterhooks by withholding information and then delivering it in such a way that the narrative seems constantly full of little shocks and surprises.
And while it revolves around child sexual abuse, Hush, Little Bird is never gratuitous; in fact, the subject is handled with great sensitivity and, dare I say it, wisdom. This is a compassionate, intelligent and provocative read; it’s also a stunning one about silence, lies and the secrets we keep.
The author is widely published, so UK and US readers should have no trouble getting hold of this one.