When the White Box shows up here at the bookstore, it’s like getting a box of candy unexpectedly, only better, because it contains books, as in ARCs (advance reader copies), as in Books That Aren’t Yet Published. Books that make you giddy with excitement because anything, Anything, ANYTHING could be in that box! Books of different genres. Books by unknown authors, mostly. Occasionally books by an author who is not well known, but whom you already love. That’s the best, when you recognize an author, and you furtively grab the book before anyone else does, because YOU GOT IT FIRST. And usually your co-workers are, like, whatever, because while you are convinced you have scored unbelievable book points because you get to read this BEFORE them and the general public, they have no clue why you are so excited, because they are doing the SAME THING, only with a DIFFERENT author.
In book parlance, you are about to reap the benefits of White Box Gold, baby, and you will earn unbelievable Book Cred when you can casually drop into a conversation that, oh yeah, did you know that so-and-so has a new book coming out, and oh yeah, I’ve already read it, yeah, yeah, I know you’re totally green with envy, but not all of us can have this sort of access. Y’know, some of us are just not WORTHY. Sorry, man.
I find it difficult to believe that there are people who actually don’t even CARE about this. I mean, what do they DO? How do they exist? Do they just sit around watching reality TV and cute kitten clips on YouTube? So Pathetic.
So you can imagine me literally-jumping-up-and-down-with-giddy-excitement to find Lisa O’Donnell’s new book, Closed Doors, in a White Box delivery! What? You don’t know Lisa O’Donnell? You haven’t read The Death of Bees?! You’d better remedy THAT situation ASAP is all I can say to you. Then you’ll be eligible to join the Lisa O’Donnell Fan Club – just remember, I was the first member. Not you. Sorry.
On the surface, Closed Doors is the story of an 11 year old boy, living in a small town on an island off the coast of Scotland during the Thatcher years of the 1980s. Michael Murray lives with his mother, father, and grandmother, in a council house, in a town where everyone knows everyone’s business. Every good thing and every bad thing about life in a small town is magnified when it’s on an island. A strong social support system exists only for the people who fit into that system without violating any social norms. Like The Death of Bees, Closed Doors is narrated by a child. Not every author can pull this off – often the child is amazingly precocious and sounds like an adult. But Michael is just a regular child, obsessed with candy, being the best at “keepy-uppies” (juggling a ball using feet and legs without the ball touching the ground), avoiding certain classmates like “Dirty Alice” McFadden and Paul MacDonald, longing after the beautiful Marianne McCameron, and hanging out with his best friend, Fat Ralph. Michael’s father, Brian, is an unemployed house painter, and his mother, Rosemary, cleans the school, and his granny is a retired nurse.
Rosemary is beaten and raped one night while walking through the park on the way home from work. This is the 1980s, remember, in a small town, when there was still a stigma attached to this kind of crime. Rosemary begs her family not to say what happened because people will say “terrible things” about her. Michael is told that a “flasher”, a kind of “pervert”, has hurt his mother, but not to say anything to anybody about any of this. Of course people immediately assume that Brian is a wife-beater, which makes life unbearable for both Brian and Michael. They are shunned, and Michael’s schoolmates make fun of his father. Their marriage suffers – what marriage wouldn’t, where a spouse would choose to let others think the other spouse was abusive rather than telling the truth? Michael knows that he is being lied to, and becomes obsessed with finding out the truth. He creeps around, listening to what others say behind closed doors. It is heartbreaking when he finally realizes what has exactly has happened to his mother. Of course, the rapist is still free, and strikes again. Rosemary feels responsible for those crimes, because she never spoke up. Other people suffer, an innocent man is accused and savagely beaten, and all because of one secret. Michael “feels like a liar because you have to act like you know nothing at all when the truth is you know everything.” He thinks that “lies make people happy except our lie, it is the worst of lies and it is making no one happy and when lies don’t make you happy you have to wonder what will happen next.” The strain of having “to keep all the stories and all the words locked inside my head” takes its toll. Michael takes Rosemary’s anxiety pills to quell his own anxiety, winding up in the hospital to get his stomach pumped. The truth is revealed to the townspeople at this point, and Rosemary becomes the recipient of the town’s anger and scorn, even though she was raped, because they blame her.
Michael and his family eventually make their peace with each other and the other townspeople who have been wronged, but Michael loses his innocence in the process, and life will never be the same.
What Closed Doors is really about, though, is secrets. The problem with secrets and lies is that they lead to yet more secrets and more lies, a great sucking vortex of secrets and lies. Why do people keep secrets anyway? So many reasons: to protect others, or to have a hold over others, or to maintain a social position or a situation, or because the secret is shameful. There are people who keep secrets because they treat information as a commodity. Keeping secrets gives the secret holder a power over others. We all know families that seem to thrive on secrets, functional in their own dysfunction. But secrets themselves often take on a life of their own, creating a festering wound that has the power to destroy people’s lives and reputations, tearing relationships and families apart. And what happens when keeping a secret leads to others getting hurt? Should the person who could have prevented the crime by speaking up be punished along with the person who committed the crime? Is a crime of omission still a crime? If being the victim of a crime is regarded as being as bad as the person who commits the crime, then why should the victim bother to report the crime? We often keep secrets from children to protect them, and yet there is a point at which it gets blurry – sometimes protecting a child by withholding information has the unintended consequence of hurting them. What gives someone the right to deprive another of the information needed to make a choice? When do we decide to give that person the information?
Once you tell a secret, it is no longer a secret. You don’t own that information anymore. You have given up all rights to it. You have lost your power. But you may have also set yourself free.