The Depression hit the wheat farmers in Perenjori hard. Lily and Ernie are forced to sell their wheat farm at Perenjori and move to the coastal town of Dongarra to start afresh. Although the guest house Ernie purchased is far from what she expected, Lily is excited about the prospect of mixing with the established families in Dongarra who have lived there for generations and have secure foundations. As she focuses on forming useful connections and allies, Lily is perturbed to discover that the president of the CWA in Dongarra knew some of the Perenjori CWA ladies. Fearing that gossip passed between the two groups of women may jeopardise her reputation, she works hard to establish herself before her secrets catch up with her.
The arrival of Lily’s brother adds another element of risk, both due to Tommy’s troubled state and the additional secrets that he may expose. Lily is encouraged by the efforts Ernie is making to improve their position, unaware of the deception he is hiding. Her daughter, Girlie is a constant disappointment and Lily’s efforts to improve her daughter cause anxiety and confusion for the child. As the plot builds, promises are made and broken and further lies are fabricated, creating a thick matt of deceit, fear, uncertainty. The real victim of this is Girlie who sees the duplicity and catches fragments of information, piecing them together using her own misguided logic to create a history where she is responsible for the conflict and shame within her family. When she discovers a secret about her heritage, her mind runs wild and she is driven to try even harder to please her mother and atone for her own perceived guilt.
It was interesting to read Girlie’s response to her mother’s discipline and the things that she overhead. She worries about the secrets and the rules of adults. She reflects a lot on the concept of belonging, comparing the ease she experienced with her friend at Perenjori with the isolation she is facing as a newcomer in a well-established town. Her thoughts about her mother’s attitudes to people based on their class and their race provide an interesting contrast to Lily’s prejudice.
Napier has delved into her own family history for inspiration for The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge which creates some interesting historical links. She tells the story from the viewpoint of four characters: Lily, Ernie, Girlie and Tommy. This technique allows her to lay the groundwork of deception and misunderstanding well. Interesting Lily is central to the stories of Ernie, Girlie and Tommy, who are often motivated to please her. Lily is a superficial woman, who has spent years living for others rather than herself and is focused on presenting a frugal, pious front. I found it hard to warm to her social climbing, her duplicity and her racism, although I recognise it is reflective of attitudes in the 1930’s and a result of her past experiences. It also creates a dramatic plot.