Web of Secrets

Written by Sharon Joseph for Mango Season on

For me Denise Harris’s Web of Secrets is a brilliant cautionary tale in which themes, language, overheard conversations, events and misunderstood events are intricately woven into a most complex and aesthetically satisfying web. The book, like a web, gradually unfolds and enmeshes the reader (as it does Margaret, a central character).

Web of Secrets cautions against, among other things, the dangers of secrecy within families and of trying to suppress the past, memories and history. It warns, also, against being wise after the event and attributing causes, reasons, glib explanations so that the author suggests 'It’s so easy to see after the event, but when you yourself are part of it, that’s another matter.' (p.12)

Web of Secrets is 'the kind of story anyone could have an opinion on' (p.12). The point is argued and proven for the book opens with a wonderfully ironic first chapter in which various elderly characters whet our appetite and draw us in by debating the story and giving us scraps of detail along with their interpretation of the events which follow. Their interpretations are naturally based on and coloured by their own past histories and experiences; their philosophies and world view. They state 'It’s a matter of psychology' and 'It’s to do with the place, with it’s history and legacies' and 'it’s a universal problem, to do with the supernatural' and so on. In so doing, the characters and first chapter introduce us to a variety of themes and levels of the narrative deftly and economically. Without doubt, this is the skill of the spider ensnaring the fly into its intricate web.

Web of Secrets consistently works on various levels as the comment from the first chapter demonstrates. One of the levels and themes is about the unconscious/ conscious act of receiving, (or witnessing), and then trying to integrate, experiences. The novel is, on one level, consciously about the process of storytelling and so challenges the reader to make sense of complex situations or to take on superior airs. Denise Harris, the storyteller, plays with the reader. The reader’s experience in reading, (piecing together) the story parallels that of Margaret Saunders, the fourteen year old obsessive eavesdropper through whom the story unfolds.

The narrative is also told indirectly through the cracks in the wall which appear to be Margaret’s grandmother waiting to ambush her and reveal her secrets. Margaret accesses and passes on to us indirectly and to Arabella, her close companion, confidante and recipient of her philosophy of life, scraps of information by listening from behind walls. By this means, she comes to understand what is happening around her though she is not directly told many things.

As Margaret tells Arabella, she does it because she needs to be prepared. She seeks to avoid the threat and panic which comes with being taken unawares by unpleasant reality, and especially since she discovered (without being told) that her father was leaving for good. Margaret therefore attempts to control her life through the powers of the word but comes to be over-reliant on them. She takes words and phrases literally, with the result that she finds herself in numerous stressful situations.

Despite this, the sad and lovely tale is not a depressing one because, to return to the first chapter 'the thing is, do we learn anything from it?' Margaret and her grandmother do, as do the elderly discussants at the beginning of the novel and so does the reader throughout. We learn among other things that 'we have something within us that can change the pain and violence and suffering into something rich and glamorous.' In fact, the reader learns more and more with every reading. Denise Harris’s Web of Secrets makes excellent reading and re-reading!