Book review: All These Perfect Strangers by Aoife Clifford

Wednesday, March 2, 2016 Permalink

I received an early copy of this debut novel by Aoife Clifford in a very clever marketing ploy with teasers on the untitled cover. It obviously worked as I read the book back in November 2015 even though it wasn’t released (and I couldn’t review it on my blog) until now.

Book review: All These Perfect Strangers by Aoife CliffordAll These Perfect Strangers
by Aoife Clifford
Published by Simon & Schuster AU
on March 1st 2016
Source: Simon & Schuster
Genres: Psychological Thriller
ISBN: 9781925310726
Pages: 389

Within six months of Pen Sheppard starting university, three of her new friends are dead. Only Pen knows the reason why.

College life had seemed like a wonderland of sex, drugs and maybe even love. The perfect place to run away from your past and reinvent yourself. But Pen never can run far enough and when friendships are betrayed, her secrets are revealed. The consequences are deadly.

‘This is about three deaths. Actually more, if you go back far enough. I say deaths, but perhaps all of them were murders. It’s a grey area. Murder, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. So let’s just call them deaths and say I was involved. This story could be told a hundred different ways.’

We meet Penelope (Pen) Sheppard when she returns (to her hometown and) to the psychiatrist she hasn’t visited for a couple of years. And it takes some time to find out why she visited Dr Frank Hennessy for a year off and on when she was 15.

She’s there now after an incident at University and before he’ll write a report to assist Pen in seeking compensation he asks her to write down her experiences and read through them during their sessions.

Really only seeing the process as a means to an ends, Pen does as requested, but finds that the diary she starts keeping becomes like a lifeline to her recent past and to her future.

It’s through her diary and sessions with Frank we learn about the events of three years earlier as well as Pen’s recent experiences.

“This is about three deaths…” she writes.

The novel’s set in 1990 which is a similar era to my own time at University and I very much related to life in a residential college on a University campus. Everything from the college ‘shop’ to formal dinners to wine (or vodka) mixed with red cordial brought my own Uni and college years to mind.

I enjoyed meeting Pen’s college friends and again could very much relate to the habit one gets into of becoming friends with those in close proximity, with little thought as to whether you’re a good fit.

In Pen’s unfolding story there’s a prowler on campus attacking students and rival drug-dealing students. And then of course there are a group of naive young people determined to do whatever it takes to fit in.

There are a stack of surprises in this debut novel by Clifford and she expertly ekes them out in dribs and drabs, adding to the complexity of the plot.

I really enjoyed her characters. Pen is flawed, but a wonderful narrator and it’s really hard not to like her. I noted some other comments from readers wondering how trustworthy she is / was. I believe she was honest with us (her diary). Less so with others… of course.

It was very easy to get drawn into Pen’s world and I really did not want to put this book aside. It’s one which definitely challenges readers’ morals and / or sense of justice. Right and wrong become very murky for Pen and her friends.

I didn’t see the events of the very end coming. And I’m not entirely sure I’m happy with the way the book ended. Pen’s story felt unfinished. I note other readers commented in Goodreads that they’re keen to read a sequel so perhaps they know something I don’t. I think I would have preferred a tad more closure here instead of a sequel. It feels like we know everything we already need to.

I don’t mind a book ended in a way that’s shocking or sad or unfair, but this just left me hanging. Indeed I re-read the last few pages several times to make sure I didn’t miss something that would give me a sense of where Clifford wanted to take it.

This was easily a 4-star read for me. Perhaps 4.5  with a slightly different ending. It would be a great read for bookclubs as there’s a lot to debate in this wonderful debut.

Note – in my review in Goodreads I add a spoiler and question for those who’ve read the book!

All These Perfect Strangers by Aoife Clifford was released in Australia by Simon & Schuster on 1 March 2016.

I received a copy of this book for review purposes. 


  • Kate W
    March 2, 2016

    I hate reading books where the characters have the same name as one of my kids! :-/

    • Debbish
      March 3, 2016

      Hmmm…. even worse (I suspect) if they’re possibly psychotic! 🙂

  • writenote1
    March 2, 2016

    I think she’s less of a victim than a puppeteer!

    • Debbish
      March 3, 2016

      It was interesting being in her head – being privy to the diary as well as what Pen was telling people etc…

      • Ysella Ayn Fulton
        May 26, 2016

        i just moved to Austin Texas and found a signed copy of the book in Goodwill shop. I started reading and a day and a half later i finished it. I havent done that in a long time! I was a college English professor and writer myself and was very pleased to binge on such a strange. extremely well written book who narrator hooked me in completely. I do was a little disappointed and confused with the ending..wanted a little more clarity but still I highly recommend this novel. It was gripping and chilling and fascinating. I reminded of one of the first novels I ever read non-stop…also with an unreliable narrator Shirly Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

        • Debbish
          May 27, 2016

          I was hooked as well Ysella! Glad you enjoyed this.

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