1821 Treasure maps, hangovers, inner turmoil
Other People’s Secrets
by Meredith Hambrock
Toronto: Crooked Lane Books, 2022
$37.99 / 9781639100989
Reviewed by Caileigh Broatch
Oakwood Hills is a lakeside resort—a place for summer vacationers to escape from the city and flock to blueish waters. It’s surrounded by beaches, cabins, and sunshine. For the characters of Other People’s Secrets, Oakwood Hills is home, albeit a decaying, overlooked home that’s seen much better days. Throw out your perception of summer camps, because this place is messy. The staff eat hot soup out of yoghurt containers, party all night after bartending, and only sometimes make it to bed before the sun rises and it’s time to report for housecleaning.
Other People’s Secrets centres around Dumpster Baby (legally named Jane Doe). An alcohol-fuelled anti-hero, she’s a messy, honest, flawed, and unconventional protagonist. She’s also complicated and cruel and selfish and unruly. Instead of trying to temper the unruliness of her protagonist, Meredith Hambrock fully embraces and carefully explores it, never trying to make her anything less than she is: ferocious, gross, and lonely. And flat broke.
The introduction to the story—a prologue detailing the birth and adoption of Dumpster Baby—offers a great taste of Hambrock’s handling of irony and voice:
Dumpster Baby, pink skinned and screaming, was discovered behind a grocery store, nestled on a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos… Once she was taken into custody, leaving the Cheetos cellophane bag behind, she becomes something unremarkable. Another orphan Jane Doe, case number #45BN6ab9… And now, here’s Baby, stuck, twenty-nine years old, eyes closed to the world, waiting for a breath, for a reason, for a slap to the cheek, god, anything, to force her eyes open, to wake the fuck up.
There’s an influx of messy women in literature these days—the bestsellers list and internet favourites are full of them. The appeal of the “messy woman” stereotype is that, while often self-destructive and irresponsible, it embraces emotional chaos. Female characters are worthy of interest even when their lives aren’t plotted, planned, and perfect. It’s not hard to find one of these characters—but it takes something special for a protagonist to stand out in the lineup of tarnished characters. Dumpster Baby has that special something. Despite the initial over-the-top-ness, Hambrock’s writing makes her flourish. Readers learn about Dumpster Baby not only through her actions but in the way other characters treat her.
There’s Donna (cop), Bad Mike (drug dealer), Peter (summer booty call), and best friends DJ Coveralls and Crystal Nugget. The list goes on, a gallery of characters that not once fade into the background. They’re resort workers, meth users, petty criminals, and absentee wealthy lakeside vacation homeowners who are worn down but loyal to this declining town. The town comes alive in the details Hambrock provides, underlining the importance and necessity of community—a crutch that living in a small town provides—even if it’s far from perfect:
The truth of it is difficult to digest, that they’ve all played a small part in this, that they never asked questions that needed asking, that people died all around them, everyone trapped by this need to stay in the same place, to not change, to not move, to not grow.
That’s where readers find Dumpster Baby, stuck and unwilling to change in the shabbiness of Lakeside. What she needs—what they all need—is for someone to shake things up. The owner of the resort and bar suddenly sells the property and hightails it out of town in the middle of the night. The departure puts Baby and the rest of the gang on edge. Oakwood Hills is the only place they know. The only saving grace is that Baby is left a glimmer of hope in the shape of a treasure map. The stakes are high for Baby. If she doesn’t find the buried treasure, then her hometown could vanish. Baby’s goal is simple: “find the safe and buy Oakwood ourselves.”
On top of having the hunt for the treasure in the dead of the night to evade an ex-convict bent on revenge, Baby also has to contend with Amelia, the resort’s new owner. To the eye, they’re polar opposites destined to butt heads. Amelia comes from money, her skin care costs a million bucks, her shoes aren’t scuffed, and her clothes don’t have holes in them. Baby, on the other hand, sleeps in the boathouse, speaks her mind vulgarly, and is intentionally unkempt. Despite the physical differences, their inner turmoil reflects that they’re unsatisfied and willing to do anything necessary to get their way.
Other People’s Secrets is fast-paced and highly entertaining. Despite contending with darker plots—overdoses and physical abuse—the humour and extravagance counterbalance sombre scenes. Other People’s Secrets has elements of noir, but shines the most in its mystery. Vancouver’s Hambrock has the chops that take the writing near literary fiction, with careful sentences and pithy dialogue.
Meredith Hambrock’s experience as a television writer—most recognizably, Corner Gas Animated—is evident as Other People’s Secrets is thrilling and punchy in the best ways possible. Who wants to see pretty people do petty things when we can watch messy people with unclear motivations fumble through life—and maybe even come out on top? It’s a thriller, absolutely, but it feels singular in its style.
Caileigh Broatch is a writer from Vancouver Island with a BA in creative writing and journalism from Vancouver Island University. Her work has taken her to investigate Canadian literature, gold panning, ghosts, and killer whales, among more academic topics. Editor’s note: Caileigh Broatch has has recently reviewed books by Vince R. Ditrich, A.J. Devlin, Nicholas Read, Nancy Hundal & Angela Pan, Denyse Waissbluth, and Barbara Smith.
The British Columbia Review
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Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
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