To confuse myself, I read the sequel (The Haunting Of Drearcliff Grange) first, but then devoured The Secrets on my way to Singapore. It’s amusing that what I took from the sequel to be the big story of the first book, turns out to be something that doesn’t happen in the first book at all; rather, there’s a set up for it and then those events occur in the gap between the two books.
But then the whole thing is quite confusing. Newman writes in his afterword that he’s interested in making a series of loosely interconnected pulp novels. The Drearcliff Grange books are mentioned in A Very British Ghost Story, while one of the teachers from the book is Catriona Kate, who is a character from Anno Dracula, Dr Shade (a pulp superhero from the 1930s made up by Newman) is in the background, and I’m sure I missed others. The whole is a glorious interweaving of different sets of fictional people.
In that sense, it’s close to A Thousand Monsters, but the plot is stronger here: Drearcliff Grange is a school for girls, more in the tradition of St Trinian’s than Hogwarts, but with some girls (the Unusuals) gifted with superpowers. This enables Newman to write a story about a girls’ school (hockey sticks, prefects, complicated rules and punishments) and also combine it with a bit of Lovecraftian horror and a metaphor around Fascism (the antagonists of the latter two thirds are the ant-like Black Skirts).
The second half of the book drags for some time. The first part (initial setup, first adventure for the Moth Club, the girls who are the centre of the story) moves rapidly, introduces us to the school, some of the bullies and the world in general, but in the second part, as the Black Shirts gradually become more powerful and more nasty, was a grind to get through. I understand why that’s happening, to build up the stakes and show how our heroine, Amy Thompsett, is getting more isolated before achieving her transformation, but at the time I just wanted to get to the fun bits.
The climactic battle, when it comes, isn’t quite what I’d expected. Just as we reach the start of the end, we flash forward twenty years and list all the adventures they’ve had since, a grand litany of over boiled mysteries and villains. This is just like the grand events that occur between the two Grangecliff books – on the one hand Newman is hoodwinking us with promises of stories that he doesn’t have to actually deliver, but it’s done in such a charming way that there’s no cause for complaint.
And then there’s a further twist, which I won’t spoil here but makes me think the flash forward was just Newman messing with us because he can, an amusing little play that whips the carpet out twice from under you, and simultaneously provides a satisfying end battle. There’s almost the same trick at the end of The Haunting Of Drearcliff Grange, which I now want to reread to figure out what I missed the first time.
Again, the thing I struggled with in both of these books (and to a lesser extent, A Thousand Monsters) is remembering who everyone in the cast is; there’s so many different schoolgirls that it’s hard to keep up with them all (though I think that’s quite intentional) – and remembering who’s who, though a challenge, is rewarding when you do remember the relationships. So, another success for Newman. I just wish he’d write more than two stories in this corner of his universe.