Friendships: The bonhomie and laughter might disguise rivalries and emotional abuse. (Shutterstock)
Friendships: The bonhomie and laughter might disguise rivalries and emotional abuse. (Shutterstock)

Review: The Whispers by Heidi Perks

The best selling author exploits the complex dichotomy in female kinship in her latest psychological thriller. The Whispers is a warped tale revolving around the toxic dynamics shared by five women
By Ananya Borogohain
UPDATED ON JUL 15, 2021 05:01 PM IST

The phrase ‘girl’s girl’, was supposed to represent a principled woman who would stand by her women friends through thick and thin. However, it is often reduced to a tool of manipulation and as a threat to slander women who choose to disagree with other women. The personality traits that are stereotypically attributed to women are congeniality and empathy, but also a herd mentality. Apparently, they take bathroom breaks together, safeguard’s one another’s secrets and watch over a sister wherever a storm’s brewing. They also stir pots and brew hurricanes sometimes but dare any woman point that out, you’re not a girl’s girl then!

Best selling author, Heidi Perks, exploits this complex dichotomy in female kinship in her psychological thriller, The Whispers. This is a warped tale revolving around the toxic dynamics shared by five women.

Penguin
Penguin

Grace Goodwin and Anna Robinson grow up inseparably in the fictional town of Clearwater on the UK’s south coast until, as a teenager, Grace relocates across the world to Australia with her parents. Years later, when both are in their late thirties and mothers of children of the same age, Grace returns to Clearwater hoping to rekindle their friendship. Except now, Anna has three other ‘best friends’: Nancy, Caitlyn and Rachael, who do not hide the cold shoulder they have reserved for Grace.

On one particularly frenzied mum’s night out at a local bar, the women have a series of confrontations following which, Anna goes missing. Each of the women then has her own approach to dealing with Anna’s disappearance, which subsequently brings to the fore their interpersonal relationships mired in dominance, manipulation and even revenge.

Perks has not constrained her book to only this premise though. There are flashback sections that go beyond the present day, underlining the complex history and psychology of the characters. There are two unreliable narrators with shaky recollections of a cold case – a traumatic death from 22 years ago – in their shared past that continues to effect their present. Apart from these, there is a Greek-style chorus that occasionally hurls in an enlightening commentary on the protagonists.

Taut but fierce, with shocking twists, The Whispers appears to be a slow burner at first. Some parts at the beginning, including the observations of a disappointing shrink being consulted by one of the protagonists, seem redundant. But before long, the pace picks up and multiple unpredictable twists in the story make up for the initial slowdown.

This is, by no means, an anti-feminist book but Perks also does not invest any time in political correctness. She bravely explores the plight of those who choose to give up their sense of self once they become mothers. The women in the story are so plagued by perpetually temporizing husbands that they develop co-dependent friendships. One’s husband is a pervert who forces himself on her friend, another’s lives thousands of miles away in Singapore, leaving her to manage home and their eight-year-old, and yet another shares her life’s biggest regret only for her husband to claim the higher moral ground and chastise her.

Author Heidi Perks (Courtesy Penguin)
Author Heidi Perks (Courtesy Penguin)

The women are left with only their co-dependency. While such associations do often end up in lopsided relationships and emotional abuse, they are further complicated by the fact that they are also life-saving for those involved. Their children’s school then becomes the locus for these women to channel their core miseries. Insecurities lurk and feed in this echo chamber of secrets, repentance and jealousy. The charm of this thriller lies in how the author peels each woman’s personality for her reader to understand where she comes from or why her emotions are wrought in deceit and obsession.

Loneliness is a primary driver for people to cultivate friendships. Perks distinguishes between two different aspects of loneliness in the book with reference to the central characters. While one, with a deceased mother and absent father, is lonely in the traditional sense, the other struggles with receiving attention and validation even in an ostensibly happy family. Their respective feelings of isolation draw them together but also damage them in different ways.

The thriller flirts with a psychological condition but doesn’t delve deep thus ensuring the plot does not turn any murkier. Perks tactfully leaves the question hanging: Is this character struggling with an inherent, clinical condition and if so, do such people ever change?

It is evident that the author is a fan of Liane Moriarty and the parallels with Big Little Lies are impossible to escape. Yet, The Whispers stays true to itself and conjures a generous amount of tension and mystery that makes it quite a challenge for the reader to put it down.

Ananya Borogohain is a former journalist and publishing professional, based in Munich, Germany. She is @ananyaborgohain on Twitter

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