I have lived on campus twice, at two different universities, and so the world Aoife Clifford evokes in her debut novel, All These Perfect Strangers, is at once familiar to me with its insular, claustrophobic feeling of living with ‘perfect strangers’. Why is that people who live in close proximity can be so nasty to one another?
It’s the same with small country towns, the other setting in Clifford’s novel. She weaves several narratives back and forth: Pen’s immediate past few months at university and the chronology of murderous events and betrayals, with the present time back home in a country town where she sees a psychiatrist, Frank. Interspersed are Pen’s memories of three years before when she and her friend Tracey are thrown into the spotlight for murdering a policeman.
Pen may have thought she escaped small town scrutiny to the city university—“University is an excellent place to reinvent oneself.”—but events have consequences: thin threads that follow you wherever you go. All the characters or ‘Perfect Strangers’ in Clifford’s novel have pasts that affect their decisions, consume them with guilt and ultimately trap them.
On the surface, All These Perfect Strangers is a simple story, and I wonder at the use of large-type font. Is it a tactic deployed to fool the reader into thinking the story will follow a straightforward narrative arc, tied up into a neat resolution? As Pen says, “It was also neater that way. Real life is never simple, but I’ve found people like to pretend that it is.”
Just below the surface of this ‘simple’ story is a web of lies. The reader is not aware of the extent of these until we reach the end, and like Pen, scramble backwards through the story clutching at what had seemed real, trying to locate the moment the present train of events had been initiated.
Clifford’s novel invites comparisons with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Pen is a bursary student, an outsider, grateful for her place and eager to go along with the in-crowd. She observes and describes, creating her version of the story to tell Frank. He tells her: “it allows you to blend into the background and instead gives me all these other people to think about and analyse. A maze of human behaviours to get lost in. I am getting a picture of everyone else but you.” Indeed. The other characters—the perfect strangers—have their backgrounds exposed and their fates told. But what of Pen’s fate?
I identified so much with Pen. The timeframe of the novel, 1987-1990 was only just before the time I first went to university. There are walkmans and jukeboxes, black-walled grungy student bars, and people who had more CDs than you’d ever seen before. I remember the intensity of on-campus friendships with people I shared all my intimate secrets with but who used them against me, of being set up at parties for ridicule, and the feeling of being alone despite hundreds of people living and sleeping above, below and all around me.