The Language of Secrets by Dianne Dixon
Hardcover, 258 pages
Published: March 23, 2010 by Doubleday (1st Published January 1, 2010)
Justin Fisher is a successful young professional with a beautiful wife and baby boy. Yet he is inexplicably detached from his family of origin. He has not seen them in over ten years. Furthermore he has gaping holes in his memories of life before college. The birth of their son prompts Justin’s wife, Amy, to insist that he reconnect with his parents and sisters. After all their child deserves to know his family, doesn’t he?
When Justin returns to his family home, he finds it has been sold — his parents have died. This is followed by an even greater shock. A visit to his parents’ graves reveals a tombstone for a little boy who died when he was only three — a tombstone engraved with Justin’s own name and birth date.
Justin delves into his past, trying to unravel the ugly secrets that led to the little gravestone, his estrangement from his family, and the huge gaps in his memory.
He was letting it in, again and again: the fact that his father was dead. He knew he should be inundated with memories, consumed with sorrow. But there was no flood of memory, no sadness. There was only a sense of dread — a chilling knowledge that the splintered door to some long-buried chamber was quietly being forced open. (p. 8)
As Justin explores his own history, the narrative slips smoothly between the past and present and shifts among different points of view, including Justin’s boyhood self, his mother, Caroline, and his father, Robert. As the story unfolded, I found it took a great deal of suspension of disbelief to go along for the ride, but I couldn’t put it down.
The people in this novel reminded me a bit of soap opera characters: elegant, successful, and polished on the surface, and a big, hot steaming mess underneath. I didn’t connect with the characters as much as I’d hoped to; they had a superficial quality. Maybe that was partly intentional. After all this is a story about people whose lives are built on disappointments, compromises, and ugly secrets, not to mention some superficial values. Nevertheless, character development was not this novel’s strength.
The real strength, for me, was the plotting. There were some rather contrived twists, but egads, this was a page turner! I read it practically in one sitting. The well-paced mystery, the well-crafted nonlinear narrative, and the varied points of view really engaged me. And even though I didn’t love the characters, and I felt the story stretched credibility even for a mystery, it was a heart-wrenching story. I found myself aching for some of the characters, in spite of myself, and reflecting on the themes the book churned up. These include love, motherhood, and the need for security. It also explored revenge, loss of a child, and the cruel, incomprehensible decisions people make. And it reflected the limited choices women had in previous generations and the often horrifying ramifications of those limitations.