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Dirty Little Secrets

Dirty Little Secrets - C.J. Omololu Dirty Little Secrets is a book that I had to let percolate for a while before reviewing. If I’d written this review based on my initial post-reading response I think it might have been quite different in tone and content. Having allowed time for my thoughts to settle, however, has resulted in a more holistic view of the novel as opposed to a knee-jerk reaction to the ending. Because what initially felt shocking now seems exactly right for this story. I think Omololu not only made a bold, confronting choice; but that she made one that successfully communicates the traumatic nature of Lucy’s situation.Compulsive hoarding has garnered increased attention over recent years thanks to the saturation of rehabilitation-style reality TV. I’m not here to argue whether this is exploitative rubbernecking or genuinely helpful, but I do think that the majority of such coverage – initially at least – is presented in such a way as to shock or disgust. Montages of squalor are packaged together so as to elicit a sort of slack-jawed horror in the viewer; it’s telegraphed quite plainly that we should feel something because it isn’t “normal”. But more on this later. Lucy’s mother is a compulsive hoarder. Outside, their house looks like most of the others on the same street. Inside, it’s choked with detritus: stockpiled clothes, decades worth of newspapers and magazines, abandoned crafts, plastic containers, rotting food. The house has fallen into disrepair and is being consumed by a small mountain of junk and filth. This is their secret from the outside world. And when Lucy’s mother dies amid the chaos, she decides to make sure that secret remains hidden. It’s up to Lucy alone to conceal the truth about their life. The key to understanding just how high the stakes are in this story lies in being able to see them from Lucy’s viewpoint. The decisions she makes throughout the novel need to be considered in the context of the life she has lived up to that point, glimpses of which Omololu provides through flashbacks and memories. Further, she juxtaposes this with the life that Lucy wishes for, by incorporating interactions with her schoolmates, her best friend, her crush, and her siblings. This isn’t just some passing embarrassment that Lucy is worried about, rather, she fears that revealing the truth will cost her the future she longs for. While she had previously determined to stick it out for the remaining years until she could leave home and put her mother’s hoarding behind her, now she’s racing against the clock to stop everyone finding out what’s really been going on. Making the shift into Lucy’s mindset is what made this novel click into place for me – and Omololu facilitates this by having the reader experience Lucy’s progression of emotions throughout the day. It’s a short novel, and one that takes place over a short period of time, but Omololu keeps the movement of the plot tied to Lucy’s mental state as she moves through various stages of processing her mother’s deaths and the repercussions thereof. There’s a clear sense of rising urgency in the novel, as the clock is ticking on Lucy’s window of opportunity to prevent her mother’s hoarding from becoming fodder for local gossip. And that’s where public reaction comes into the equation. Whether or not the response Lucy fears is realistic is not really the issue here. The fact is, it’s real to her. The outpouring of revulsion she expects from people is the driving force behind her actions in the story. Whether or not Lucy is cognizant of the fact that her mother’s hoarding is an illness, it’s overshadowed by her fear of the public’s perception. The possibility of empathy or understanding is all but drowned out by the expectation of disgust and humiliation. This is not an book easy to summarise without significantly spoiling it, but it’s worth bearing in mind that this isn’t an in depth analysis of the psychology of compulsive hoarding, but rather how it affects a hoarder’s family members. Omololu gives us some insight into the reasons why this situation has come about, but the novel is more concerned with how it has impacted Lucy’s life – both physically and emotionally. In that respect, it’s a compelling book – showing the extreme pressure that Lucy has lived with and has shaped her as a person. And this is powerfully portrayed in the ending of the novel, which crystalises years of fear and stress into a haunting final scene.