Diane Chamberlain | Secrets She Left Behind | Review

Book cover of The secrets she Left Behind Diane Chamberlain

Karen Byrom, fiction editor

Secrets She Left Behind by Diane Chamberlain HQ PB, £7.99 (new edition from December 28)

Sixteen year old Andy is so excited that his older sister Maggie is coming home after a long absence. He doesn’t care that she’s been in prison for wilful fire-raising which led to loss of life … he just wants her back in his life.

Nineteen-year-old Maggie is happy to be leaving prison, but not so sure about the homecoming she’ll receive. All she’d wanted to do was help her firefighter boyfriend gain recognition as a hero. Instead, she’s responsible for the deaths of an adult and two teenagers, and the severe disfigurement of another.

The folk of North Topsail are in no doubt about their feelings – they don’t want Maggie back in their town and they mob her home in protest.

But North Topsail is their home, too,  so Maggie, Andy, their mother Laurel decide to sit things out, with support from Marcus. His late brother Steve, was married to Laurel, and he and Laurel are now partners.

For one person, things will never be normal

Gradually, a semblance of normality returns. Andy, who has special needs thanks to fetal alcohol syndrome, continues to date his girlfriend Kimmie. Maggie starts community service, first at the local school, then at the library and finally at the children’s hospital.

But for one person, things will never be normal. The day Maggie gets out of jail is the day badly-burned Keith’s mother Sara goes missing.

Already made twisted and bitter by his horrific injuries, Keith now blames Maggie for his mother’s disappearance, too.  He doesn’t know that Sara gave Andy a note to give to him. A note that now lies forgotten at the bottom of Andy’s schoolbag. Until it surfaces, the hunt is on for Sara.

As he strives to come to terms with his mother’s apparent abandonment of him, Keith finds solace with Jen, a new girl in town, who accepts him for who he is, not how he looks. He does not realise that she has befriended Maggie, too. Andy, meanwhile, is sure he knows Jen from somewhere – he just can’t remember where.

What secrets is she keeping?

Can Maggie ever forgive herself?

This is a multi-layered story. On the surface we have the mystery of Sara’s disappearance. But beyond that are the themes of redemption and acceptance of things that we cannot change.

No-one believes Maggie has paid enough for her mistake, not even Maggie herself. But until she forgives herself, she can’t move forward.

Keith must let go of his grief for his former self and learn forgiveness, too.

Then there are the adults.  Gradually, through Sara’s journal we discover that nothing is as it seems on the surface.  Laurel, Marcus, Sara herself – even the late Steve – all share a burden of responsibility for the tragedies that have taken place.

But before they can come to terms with the past, there’s one more tragedy waiting to happen …

Secrets She Left Behind cover

As always with Diane Chamberlain, I read this story from cover to cover in one sitting.

It doesn’t matter in the least that it’s a sequel to Before The Storm. Secrets She Left Behind reads beautifully as a stand-alone story, with the background knowledge the reader needs skilfully woven into the current story.

The author’s powerful storytelling extends beyond the narrative to create rich, multi-faceted characters. Should we hate Laurel for her alcoholic past, Sara for her betrayal of a friend, Maggie for her crime, Keith for his unforgiving attitude? We can’t, because they are all so much more than their actions.

Andy and Kimmie are particularly joyous characters. Innocents in the face of tragedy  they go through life happily unblighted by the mistakes of those around them. Whenever things get too dark, they are there to lighten the story. Andy’s enduring love for Maggie reminds us that no-one should suffer forever, no matter what wicked things they have done.

But as Jen’s motives for coming to North Topsail gradually become apparent, will it be too late for Maggie to avoid the fate she so unwittingly inflicted on others?

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Karen Byrom

My coffee mug says "professional bookworm" which sums me up really! As commissioning fiction editor on the magazine, I love sharing my reading experience of the latest books, debut authors and more with you all, and would like to hear from you about your favourite books and authors! Email me kbyrom@dctmedia.co.uk