Book review: All The Hidden Truths by Claire Askew

All the Hidden Truths is a timely book, told from the points of view of three Edinburgh women. DI Helen Birch, in her first day following a promotion, starts to get reports of a shooting at a fictional city college. Two mothers of students, Ishbel Hodgekiss, who argued with her 19-year-old daughter the night before and Moira Summers, whose son Ryan has become increasingly distant since the death of his father, are first made aware of the incident by sirens, Twitter reports and patchy news coverage as the event unfolds. What happens is told through their eyes, supplemented by sensationalist tabloid reports, hysterical commentary on social media and transcripts of police interviews with survivors and families.

Claire Askew
Claire Askew

But this isn’t a whodunnit: we are told from the beginning that Moira’s son Ryan is the shooter, and the 13 victims, including Ishbel’s daughter Abigail, have been killed before he turns the gun on himself. Nor is it truly a whydunnit. As Birch explains: “There is no way to ‘solve’ a crime like this: there is no logical end-point, no closure to be found. When Ryan Summers discharged his last round, he’d frozen time: he’d forever be the bad guy that no one could bring in.”

The narrative therefore goes back and forth, examining the circumstances which led up to the shooting, Ryan’s posts on the dark web to similarly minded “incels” (involuntary celibates) and other sources such as Abigail’s diary, found after her death by her mother.

The book also examines the public’s apparent need to find someone to blame in cases like this when the perpetrator is dead, and gives a real sense of the voracious appetite of journalists, camped outside bereaved families’ homes, trying to satisfy the public appetite for intimate details.

It also describes in beautiful, haunting language the grief of the mothers. Ishbel describes how her heart pulses with the words “she’s dead, she’s dead, she’s dead” and the “overwhelming desire to no longer be awake, to turn off all thoughts, cut off the air supply.”

It is a nightmare scenario for any parent, and the familiarity of the setting describing the capital’s bus routes, streets and houses coupled with the details of the by-now commonplace reports of mass shootings from the US literally brings the horror home.

But perhaps the universal parental fear that Askew has tapped into is the moment that your teenagers go out into the world and not only can you no longer protect them, but you can only hope that you have done enough to equip them to make decent choices for themselves.

It examines guilt as a part of parenthood, too, and while Ryan’s actions are extreme, the guilt that his mother feels, and that of Ishbel about her relationship with her daughter, will be recognisable to many.

Askew’s use of social media, message boards, tabloid reports, texting and below the line comments is realistic, and asks some searing questions about 21st century society. The use of these various media also allows the narrative to be driven forward without reams of exposition, leaving the first person chapters from the three women to fill in the emotion behind the headlines and the conspiracy theories.

This is a memorable novel and one which would lend itself well to a TV adaption. Askew has brilliant powers of description, an adept eye for capturing truth about relationships and a unflinching gaze when it comes to assessing human weakness.

All The Hidden Truths, by Claire Askew, Hodder & Stoughton, 376pp, £12.99