Written by Aoife Clifford — Penelope Sheppard (Pen for short) is like almost any other teenager in small-town Australia in the early 1990s. She longs to escape, to break out from the confines of rural life. The chance comes in the form of a bursary allowing her to study law at a university in the big city, living on campus. The name of the city is never revealed, but it resembles Canberra, where Clifford herself studied. She’ll be away from her mother and her new boyfriend, away from her psychiatrist, away from the ghosts of her past that haunt her small-town life.
Pen soon finds out that the past isn’t that easy to escape. As she recounts her tumultuous first semester at university to her psychiatrist Frank, it becomes clear that she may never escape the guilt of her past. With chapters on the psychiatrist’s chair interspersed with ones in which she tells her story, it’s never really clear what is embellished and what is passed over. As she narrates, there are gaps in the timeline that brought her back to the psychiatrist’s couch in the small town she came from. Putting the pieces together and sorting truth from lies is a tricky process.
What we do find out is that Pen was involved in a series of deaths – ones she she feels a certain amount of responsibility for. The townsfolk also blame her.
One of those deaths is that of her best friend Tracey, and it casts a shadow over the whole narrative even though it’s only ever mentioned in passing. Tracey first appears via the silhouette of a fellow student during orientation week as Pen’s bus pulls up to her new university, a fleeting glimpse which Pen soon realises was only her imagination. Pen’s guilt over her friend’s death never really leaves her, as she meets her new dorm mates in Scullin Hall (all the halls are named after former Australian prime ministers), and begins to fall into a social circle.
The characters include a wide range of stereotypes you’d expect at an early-90s university. There’s the daggy Sub-Dean, the head of the hall; there’s Toby, the gay Asian-Australian residential assistant; his offsider, the opinionated Leiza; there’s Joad the Toad; Kesh, short for Marrakesh; the hunk Rogan whose real name is Josh, nicknamed after the curry; the slightly rebellious Rachel, described as ‘a walking exclamation mark of a person’; and the quiet loner Michael. Pen makes every effort to fit in with her new group, taking part in bar crawls and trying her best to hide her past, even as a madman with a screwdriver – creatively nicknamed The Screwdriver Man – is attacking young women on campus.
When Rachel stumbles on the dark secrets from Pen’s past, Pen impulsively tries to stop word from getting out. She slips a sleeping pill into Rachel’s drink, and hours later Pen and Rogan are pulling her bloated body out of the creek that runs through the campus. Despite the Screwdriver Man stalking the area and motorcycle gangs cruising around, Pen can’t help but feel guilty, until her sleeping pills go missing and she begins to suspect something more sinister is going on. Pen sets out to investigate, but the truth may end up putting her in more danger.
Aoife Clifford’s debut novel fits perfectly within the current flavour for psychological crime fiction featuring women and by women writers, recalling Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. In some ways it certainly feels like a debut – the characters are flatly drawn, and the action feels clichéd. Some of this can be put down to Pen’s unreliable narration, but that only stretches so far. What All These Perfect Strangers does show is a real new talent, a writer who is able to write a compelling and intriguing psychological drama, and I have high hopes for Clifford’s next novel.
Simon & Schuster
CFL Rating: 3 Stars