A decade ago, I read and reviewed Elizabeth Graver's novel AWAKE, about a summer camp for kids with xeroderma pigmentosum (XP), a genetic disease in which individuals lack the enzyme responsible for repairing the skin from UV exposure; as a result, they must avoid even the most casual exposure to sunlight. The haunting images of children confined to a life lived only after dark have stayed with me ever since, so I was intrigued to learn that Carla Buckley's new novel, THE DEEPEST SECRET, also concerns a family affected by XP.
Like most parents of XP kids, Eve and David had no idea of their son Tyler's diagnosis until he was more than a year old. By that time, however, the damage to his tissues that will eventually kill him, likely before he's out of his teens, had already been done. Now Tyler is about to start high school (which he attends via Skype), and he's feeling more isolated than ever.
"THE DEEPEST SECRET is rich in the kinds of questions that will preoccupy suburban book groups and introspective individuals alike."
Tyler’s best friend Zach is preoccupied with normal teenage things like having a girlfriend, joining the football team, and getting a part-time job --- all things he will never be able to do. The other XP kids he has met online have started dying, a constant reminder to Tyler of his own fate. His older sister Melissa has started keeping secrets from him and his family, his dad (who works in DC during the week and comes home to Columbus on the weekends) seems distant and preoccupied, and his mom is… well, she's his mom, constantly vigilant and worried about his well-being. After dark, unbeknownst to any of them, Tyler sneaks out of their home (which Eve has outfitted like a fortress to keep out unwanted UV rays) and tours their cul-de-sac, camera in hand, exploring his neighbors' secrets.
They all have secrets, for sure --- some more ominous than others --- but even Tyler doesn't know that his mother, after a split-second error, is hiding the most profound, potentially dangerous secret of all. After tragedy strikes and the subdivision is divided by fear and suspicion, Tyler's family, friends and neighbors will be asking themselves how far they would go to protect their own children.
Carla Buckley's previous books --- THE THINGS THAT KEEP US HERE and INVISIBLE --- have both explored outside threats to a comfortable suburban existence, in one case a flu pandemic and in the other environmental toxins. What's notable about this excellent third novel is that she continues to explore how these external threats, whether sunshine or a neighborhood stalker, are balanced by the internal threats of miscommunication, depression, or silence, the kinds of damage we inflict, intentionally or not, on those we love. She also raises questions about whether it's possible to parent, or even love, exceptional and typical children the same way, whether a parent's care for a child comes at the expense of their marriage, and whether it's possible or even reasonable to protect our children from all those things that can harm them.
In short, THE DEEPEST SECRET is rich in the kinds of questions that will preoccupy suburban book groups and introspective individuals alike.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on February 7, 2014