Hush Hush: Can there be anything worse than a mother hurting her children?

Stars: 3.5

Blurb: The award-winning New York Times bestselling author of After I’m Gone, The Most Dangerous Thing, I’d Know You Anywhere, and What the Dead Know brings back private detective Tess Monaghan, introduced in the classic Baltimore Blues, in an absorbing mystery that plunges the new parent into a disturbing case involving murder and a manipulative mother.

On a searing August day, Melisandre Harris Dawes committed the unthinkable: she left her two-month-old daughter locked in a car while she sat nearby on the shores of the Patapsco River. Melisandre was found not guilty by reason of criminal insanity, although there was much skepticism about her mental state. Freed, she left the country, her husband and her two surviving children, determined to start over.

But now Melisandre has returned Baltimore to meet with her estranged teenage daughters and wants to film the reunion for a documentary. The problem is, she relinquished custody and her ex, now remarried, isn’t sure he approves.

Now that’s she’s a mother herself–short on time, patience–Tess Monaghan wants nothing to do with a woman crazy enough to have killed her own child. But her mentor and close friend Tyner Gray, Melisandre’s lawyer, has asked Tess and her new partner, retired Baltimore P.D. homicide detective Sandy Sanchez, to assess Melisandre’s security needs.

As a former reporter and private investigator, Tess tries to understand why other people break the rules and the law. Yet the imperious Melisandre is something far different from anyone she’s encountered. A decade ago, a judge ruled that Melisandre was beyond rational thought. But was she? Tess tries to ignore the discomfort she feels around the confident, manipulative Melisandre. But that gets tricky after Melisandre becomes a prime suspect in a murder.

Yet as her suspicions deepen, Tess realizes that just as she’s been scrutinizing Melisandre, a judgmental stalker has been watching her every move as well. 

Have you ever read or watched We need to talk about Kevin? It’s a book about a boy that goes on a shooting massacre at his school, after killing his father and family. His mother (the only survivor from his family) is left to make sense of what happened. I haven’t read the book, but there’s a coldness in the movie – because the mother, played by Tilda Swinton, is in a state of shock (how do you not spend the rest of your life in shock after your child has done something like that) and Kevin, who is simply cold.

That’s the feeling I got when I started this book and was introduced to Melisandre. The beauty of Laura Lippman’s writing though, is that she manages to make that work in Melisandre’s favour, for as the secrets in Melisandre’s former family come out, I found myself understanding why she might be this way.

What attracted me to this book was that Lippman was delving into a topic of a mother who did the unthinkable and was returning to her family to reconnect. I wondered why she would do that, and what secrets would come with her. And how that would affect her girls. I thought perhaps, could she have been unfairly accused and there was more to her story?

But, the guise of filming a documentary about herself hints at someone still obsessed about her image, and willing to force her ex in whatever way possible to let her visit her older daughters. What’s worse – being part of a documentary in which you can give your side of the story or ignoring it altogether? It’s a hard choice to make, especially when you have secrets of your own.

Slowly but surely Lippman strips back the layers of the Dawes family, exposing them all, including the two daughters and their secrets. It’s a layered and compelling writing, with characters you will root for, before Lippman reveals them for who they really are.

In general, Lippman has created a cast of nuanced female characters – from Melisandre to her daughters and their stepmother, none of these women are the picture they present to the world. So much so, that I thought them all far more interesting than Tess was. Melisandre is by far my favourite in the way she manipulates the people around her for her own ends. No one will stand in the way of getting what she wants.

There’s a stark contrast in the book between the chaos of Tess’ life as a mother and Melisandre’s, and even Felicia,  Stephen new wife. Theirs are lives built on an  image, the idea of what family should be. Tess’ is chaos, but also a familiar chaos, a homey one even – the kind of chaos you probably grew up with.

I’ve been trying to puzzle out why I didn’t find myself responding to Tess as much as I expected to. I think it’s because I often can’t start with book 12 of a series if I haven’t read book one, but with this I made an exception – with a blurb like that I couldn’t not. Perhaps it’s because we’re about to get some new additions to our family?

Unfortunately, once I’d finished I realised how much of Tess I’d missed out on – what events had shaped her to be the person she was here? What were the relationships that changed her? How did they change her? Did she ever have doubts about motherhood? Instead, I found her sort of an outlier to Melisandre’s story and I just couldn’t respond to her as much as I wanted to – I think that means I just have to go back and read book 1.

What did you think of Hush Hush? And Melisandre? Did you find yourself sympathising with her? Or were you as suspicious as Tess was?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.