Time, Justice and Bestseller Status in All Her Secrets by Jane Shemilt
By Eleanor Bowskill, Nalisha Vansia, Hannah McWhinnie and Zarah Yesufu
Not often is such a catastrophic tale set against the backdrop of an otherwise picturesque Greek island. This tense, revengeful thriller seamlessly weaves between idyllic Paxos and present-day London, to unveil the buried truths that bind protagonists Sophie and Julia. All Her Secrets is steeped in dread and intrigue from the outset, showcasing Jane Shemilt’s expert characterisation and skilful examination of privilege, entitlement and insolence throughout.
Greece is not only the beautifully vivid setting of Shemlit’s novel; it also served as the editing hub for her first novel Daughter. She says “I felt kind of fuelled by all the sounds, smells and heat of Greece. And I kind of wanted to rediscover that.” Shemlit’s return to the island of Paxos grounded her in this inspirational space, seeing the stories within “the silence of the olive groves” where “you could almost imagine the gods, some were just out of sight watching.” Shemlit plays on feeling the “ancientness of the landscape quite profoundly” to foreground her latest thriller, with secrets almost like a “shadow on a sunny pathway.” She says “you’re kind of not expecting something horrid in a beautiful holiday place,” and this is exactly what offsets the drama.
By the time Shemilt allowed herself the “freedom” to pursue writing as a full-time career she had been with the NHS for almost thirty years. In her own words, the decision to commit to writing was one she “had to make” as the opportunities to talk about books and the different aspects of her craft had overtaken her interest in “renal disease and hypertension.” The transition was so joyful and positive that it compared to “stepping through the back of the wardrobe” into Narnia, leaving little room for feelings of guilt or self-doubt. Shemilt acknowledged that the “sense of commitment” to her patients still lingers even after departing from medicine.
Despite boasting an impressive oeuvre and holding numerous accolades, Shemilt tries her best to get into a “deep space” when approaching a new project. She aims to “put all other distractions aside” and re-discover the mindset she had when writing her debut novel, which she completed in a year while studying for her MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. She set a vivid scene, working in an “empty room” in a “partly unfurnished” house, at a big trestle table. It’s not always possible to achieve such a “white heat” of creative fuel, with deadlines and expectations that cannot be ignored, but she still tries to make “the most creative bits” as simplified as possible.
All Her Secrets follows the dual perspectives of Sofie, a young Greek girl in 2003, and Julia, a well-to-do woman in modern London. When writing Julia, Shemilt favoured the “immediacy” of first-person narrative, allowing the reader to “inhabit” her thoughts more closely. This choice to keep Sophie at a distance helped Shemilt avoid appropriating Greek culture, which she so beautifully invokes, despite her outsider status. Furthermore, as the plot moves forward in unsettling ways, the separation imposed by a third-person perspective leaves “space for the reader’s imagination” to fill in the gaps.
Part of her inspiration for the novel came from a news story which broke several years ago focusing on boarding schools like the one in which Julia’s husband, James is the headmaster. The sudden disappearance of the story made Shemilt question the victims how trauma can “go underground, and how people can “suppress it for a long time” as it can take a “very long time to process.” This was also an occurrence she’d seen in her time as a medic, when “people would tell [her] things that happened to them as children that they’d never expressed.”
Depictions of trauma caused by abusive patriarchal power form key plot points in the novel, and leave a deep, long-lasting impression on the reader. Whilst the power imbalance may evoke hints of critical feminist thought, Shemilt explains that she is “aware that feminist principles that are not intersectional do a lot of harm,” and therefore serves to focus exclusively on the story of “two women.” By focusing exclusively on Julia and Sofie’s experiences as individuals, Shemilt explores “stories and themes” that emerged from her “deep subconscious,” some of which “are preoccupations” that even she “is not aware of sometimes.” In this way, Shemilt thought “more in emotional beats” that echoed her “experience of complicated female relationships, and how resilient they are.”
Parental and intergenerational relationships significantly shape the type of women Sofie and Julia become throughout the novel. Reflecting on raising children in a dangerous world where gender inequality is still prevalent, Shemilt comments that “what you try to do as a parent” to combat this, is to “instil things like resilience, and social competence, and self awareness, and moral strength.” Whilst teaching children the dangers of the world is admittedly “very difficult,” what matters most to Shemilt is to teach “empathy and self control and integrity and curiosity” – many of which “you learn through reading.”
All Her Secrets is available to purchase now.