Diane Chamberlain is a hugely popular though I’ve only read one book by the American author, Pretending to Dance, published in 2015.
Her latest, Big Lies in a Small Town unfolds in two timeframes and is centred around two women whose livelihoods – and in some ways their futures – depend on an opportunity they’ve been presented in small-town Edenton, almost 80 years apart.
Big Lies in a Small Town
by Diane Chamberlain
Published by Macmillan
Genres: General Fiction, Thriller / Suspense
ISBN: 9781760789558, B07YDD3JMJ
North Carolina, 2018: Morgan Christopher's life has been derailed. Taking the fall for a crime she did not commit, she finds herself serving a three-year stint in the North Carolina Women's Correctional Center.
Her dream of a career in art is put on hold - until a mysterious visitor makes her an offer that will see her released immediately. Her assignment: restore an old post office mural in a sleepy southern town. Morgan knows nothing about art restoration, but desperate to leave prison, she accepts. What she finds under the layers of grime is a painting that tells the story of madness, violence, and a conspiracy of small town secrets.
North Carolina, 1940: Anna Dale, an artist from New Jersey, wins a national contest to paint a mural for the post office in Edenton, North Carolina. Alone in the world and desperate for work, she accepts. But what she doesn't expect is to find herself immersed in a town where prejudices run deep, where people are hiding secrets behind closed doors, and where the price of being different might just end in murder.
The thing I loved most about this book is that the stuff I thought would happen, didn’t – which seems to be a common theme for me of late. Perhaps I’m getting more-stupid as I age…. or books are increasingly subtle.
Either way, it wasn’t predictable. We can kinda guess where the book’s going but Chamberlain veers away from obvious paths. We learn fairly early on (and it’s in the blurb above) that Morgan claims she is innocent of the drink driving offence that had her imprisoned and her blind love for an ambitious young man saw her take the blame. Because I read way too much crime fiction, I kept waiting then to either discover that she WAS guilty after all and in denial or perhaps has blacked it out; or for him to reappear and for her to cast aside a new love interest and make the same mistakes all over again.
However… things didn’t work out quite like that.
We first meet Anna in December of 1939 when she arrives in Edenton. And… it has to be said she is kinda naive in some of her actions (given the time and place). Unfortunately for her, she was awarded the mural gig over a local artist – a popular portrait artist with a wife and kids.
So she’s an outsider. But Anna’s young and enthusiastic and recovering from her mother’s death so decides to stay in town to complete the mural rather than returning home after finalising her design as planned.
I was actually surprised to the extent that Anna’s accepted by the locals but there’s a simmering unease and she stokes that with her naiveté and wilfulness.
In the present, Morgan’s put under pressure by her benefactor’s daughter to complete the restoration so his dream – the museum – can open as planned. Though the task seems impossible Morgan’s fallen in love with the mural, and intrigued by the story behind it – particularly the weird dichotomies she’s (literally) uncovering.
It’s a second chance for Morgan and she’s determined to make the most of it. And she’s always been a huge fan of her (now deceased) benefactor’s work though can’t understand how he came to have the mural and – more importantly why he chose her to restore it.
It’s this unfolding story of the original mural – why it was never unveiled and what happened to its artist that intrigues Morgan (and we readers I suspect) the most.
Interestingly, although the two (intertwined) plots unfolding simultaneously, we only learn of the outcome of the earlier years through the present story.
Both Morgan and Anna are likeable though I engaged more with the former. I guess I could relate to her more. She’s up-front about her past and refreshingly honest about her lack of restoration experience and resulting nerves, and finds herself attracted to the museum curator, despite some understandable trust issues.
Anna’s got an equally challenging backstory. The manner of her mother’s death is only obliquely eluded to initially, before we learn of her mental illness, and – as events unfold – Anna becomes fearful of history repeating itself.
Race and racism plays a large role in this book. Jesse Jameson Williams, Morgan’s benefactor, was African American, as is (obviously) his daughter – Morgan’s now-taskmaster.
But in the 1940s race was a far bigger issue and Anna misjudges the extent of racism prevalent in Edenton when she offers an internship to a talented African American teenage artist. Chamberlain introduces us to his family so we don’t only see the town’s distrust and suspicion, but also the fact his family believes the family farm is his only option for the future.
Chamberlain offers a little history here (I’d not heard of the town’s claim to fame, the Edenton Tea Party, for example – an 18th century movement in which the women of the town signed a petition to boycott all English products, including tea), and of course we’re reminded of the history of race relations (then and now).
So it’s in this context and through two likeable leads – Anna and Morgan – that Chamberlain touches on a number of weighty issues and reminds us of the importance of second chances and redemption.
Big Lies in a Small Town by Diane Chamberlain will be published by Pan Macmillan Australia on 14 January 2020.
I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.