Ashley Audrain’s second book, The Whispers is a suburban domestic thriller that focuses on the lives of four women who are neighbours in an unnamed North American city. Where it takes place isn’t relevant – the focus is on the people and the events tied to this small suburban area. These are people who live close enough to gaze in their neighbour’s windows and can hear conversations in the yard next door. Living in such close proximity has given the neighbours the illusion that they know a lot about each other. But that false sense of familiarity is fractured after something unpleasant occurs at a neighbourhood party.
The party is being hosted by Whitney and Jacob in the garden of their massive three-storey house. No expense has been spared on catering. Whitney takes pleasure in noticing that her guests are impressed and somewhat envious of her attention to every perfect detail. The only thing she’s unable to control is Xavier, their ten-year-old son, who insists on wearing a stained T-shirt. Although he was instructed to take care of the younger children, he has not followed through with Whitney’s request.
When Whitney finds him in his third-floor bedroom eating all the treats that were in goody bags for the other young guests, she loses her temper and begins yelling and swearing at him. It’s a nice warm day, the windows in his room are wide open, and everybody at the party hears the angry exchange between mother and son. Within minutes Whitney’s image as the woman who has it all is ruined. The moment is saying, “Something isn’t right here.” A whisper.
Other neighbours at the party are key characters in the story, including Blair, Whitney’s best friend, Blair’s husband Aiden and their seemingly perfect child Chloe. Blair envies Whitney’s lifestyle and attentive husband. Whitney envies Blair’s ease with motherhood. Then there are Rebecca and Tom. With no kids, their lifestyle seems free and easy to the others, but they desperately want to be parents. An older couple, Mara and Albert, were invited to the party but chose not to attend. However, they can hear everything through their hedge.
The narrative of the book goes back and forth between the time of the party and nine months later when Xavier ends up in the hospital after a fall from his third-floor bedroom window in the middle of the night. His condition is critical. He’s in a coma and it’s not clear whether he will survive the fall. He is the victim in this suburban domestic thriller.
Jacob was away on business at the time of the accident, leaving Whitney alone for a while by Xavier’s bedside. The details around Xavier’s tragic accident are unknown. Canadian author Ashley Audrain tells the story from the perspective of those living in the neighborhood. As the book opens with a man returning to his marital home after being with another woman, you will be looking for signs of Whitney having an affair.
Although there is a sense of what the men are feeling, the primary focus is on the women and the challenges and expectations they face around friendship, career, marriage and motherhood. Audrain pulls open the curtains and shows us what is going on behind closed doors. Sometimes it’s not a pleasant image but the views provided feel authentic, especially regarding the grief caused by miscarriages. We see how elements from past relationships can inform the present, whether it is neglect, extramarital affairs, or controlling, belittling behavior to a spouse or child. We also see the damage that children can inflict on one another through bullying.
The action in The Whispers is character-driven and it’s a slow burn as we gradually learn the truth about each of them. Like the characters in the book, we don’t immediately see the truth for what it is. Not until the end can we look back in hindsight to finally understand those whispers.
Fans of domestic noir will also want to read Audrain’s first book, The Push.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars