All These Perfect Strangers by Aoife Clifford grabbed me for two reasons: first there was the teaser I read: “This is about three deaths. Actually more, if you go back far enough. I say deaths, but perhaps all of them were murders. It’s a grey area. Murder, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. So let’s just call them deaths and say I was involved. This story could be told a hundred different ways.” And second, the author’s name (one which in my ignorance I had never ever heard or see before, and I had no clue how to pronounce it, and I just HAD to know…sort of like T. Coraghessan Boyle, you know?)
This is one of what seems like a dozen books I have read recently that involve a young woman, a mysterious death/disappearance, a slowly revealed history of said character/town/whatever (in this case, University), and a possibly unreliable narrator. In this one, we have Penelope (Pen) Sheppard, who goes away to University, where she hopes to begin a new life. Within six months, three of her new friends are dead. She goes back home, and we learn she is the victim of a violent trauma and is once again a pariah in her hometown (as she felt she was before she left for school). She goes to her shrink to get his signature or whatever it takes to approve funds (I think; I am a bit unclear on why she was unburdening herself in this way, but was too caught up in the story to go back and try to understand motivations – I wanted to know what was going to HAPPEN!) She has to tell her story to her shrink and to the police, and it is revealed in both narrative and diary form.
We learn both about her backstory (why was she such a pariah in her hometown? What happened back there, anyway?) and about a prowler on campus attacking students and rival drug-dealing students. And there are the requisite (in a story set largely at a University) naive young people determined to do whatever it takes to fit in (I had just re-read Donna Tartt’s Secret History, and saw some similarities). Yikes! Parentheses gone wild!
The plotting is complex, and there are some fascinating characters. But Pen was the best: although she may or may not be unreliable as a narrator, she was honest in her diary…I think. Possibly not so much with those to whom she was telling her story. Mystery!
Like the aforementioned Secret History, this book dives into questions of morality and justice, with foggy lines between right and wrong. I didn’t see the end coming, and I don’t really know how I feel about it. As noted by others, the story feels a bit unfinished. If Clifford is planning a sequel, I think many readers would be happy to read it. Oh, and BTW, her name is pronounced “eee-fuh”! Thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy of All These Perfect Strangers, four stars!