A pupil and a teacher. Is it ever right to break the rules? Jessica Hart has never forgotten Matthew Landley. After all, he was her first love when she was fifteen years old. But he was also her school maths teacher, and their forbidden affair ended in scandal with his arrest and imprisonment. Now, seventeen years later, Matthew returns to Norfolk, with a new identity and a long-term girlfriend and a young daughter, who know nothing of what happened before. Yet when he runs into Jessica, neither of them can ignore the emotional ties that bind them together. With so many secrets to keep hidden, how long can Jessica and Matthew avoid the dark mistakes of their past imploding in the present? From debut author Rebecca Done, This Secret We’re Keeping is a powerful and provocative novel about the ties which can keep us together – or tear us apart.
This novel is told over two time frames, which gives it an interesting dynamic. We get to see Matthew, or Will as he’s now known, and Jess in the present day but we also get to read Matthew’s viewpoint of what happened when he and Jess has their affair.
This was an interesting novel. It’s a controversial subject anyway, the idea of a grown man dating a 15 year old girl but when he is her teacher it adds to the seriousness of the situation. It initially seems very clear in this novel that Jess does a lot of the running but Matthew doesn’t do much to resist her, and the issue is that even if she did pursue him she is a child in the eyes of the law and it is up to him to tell her no. It’s easy to forget this over the course of the novel and to feel like this is a grand love story, and then when you’re reminded that what he did was a crime it’s feels unfair and shocking.
Matthew did end up going to prison for the relationship he had with Jess and she appears to have moved on with her life. The novel begins in the present day when Jess spots Matthew and runs after him and he ends up accidentally knocking her down with his car whilst his wife and child are with him. This leads to them seemingly irresistibly being drawn back to each other.
I actually felt really uncomfortable about their relationship most of the way through the novel, but weirdly, and I’m not sure if it’s just because we got a more rounded view of the present day, it bothered me more in the present day. There were little things that Matthew said or implied and it would bring me up short, it felt to me that he was obsessed with Jess and always had been, which then leads to me questioning whether he was intentionally grooming her when she was a schoolgirl. The fact that we only see their illegal relationship through his eyes means we never really know the truth about it, because he is only going to tell it in a way that makes him seem as innocent of a crime as possible. Jess’s side of the story, that we learn in retrospect is almost irrelevant because if he had been grooming her, it would make sense that she did believe she was in love with him – she wouldn’t have known any difference at the time and it would have blinkered her judgment as she got older.
I liked the way the novel ended, it fitted the way the book had been up until that point. I’m not going to give any spoilers but I know a lot of readers may well find the ending a little open and dissatisfying but I did feel it worked with the way the novel had been throughout.
I rated it 4 out of 5 and would recommend it. I found it be a novel that really made me think and yet managed to remain an enjoyable read – there is a great balance between treating this issue seriously but without making readers feel bogged down at any point. I’m really looking forward to seeing what Rebecca Done writes next!
I received this book from Michael Joseph/Penguin via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
This Secret We’re Keeping is out now and available from all good bookshops.