My weekly childhood piano lesson was always a bizarre adventure. My dad would drop me off at my teacher’s home, and, once admitted, I would follow Mrs. R. through a rabbit warren of stacked boxes and ceiling-high newspaper skyscrapers to the back room where the piano loomed, looking like a petulant god scowling down upon its puny worshippers.
This impression was heightened by the fact that said piano was flanked by piles upon piles of books, which wobbled as if one random sneeze would bring the whole works down on our heads. More newspapers, more boxes, and heaps of random junk crowded the rehearsal space, leaving just enough room for me to squeeze in next to Mrs. R. on the bench and plunk my way through whatever piece I’d been practicing all week, politely ignoring the odd, stale smells baked into the house from years of old-world cooking.
Even after all these years, thinking about it gives me the wiggins. While I’m certainly not the world’s greatest housekeeper, the thought of being a prisoner in my own home, held captive by my own stuff, is scary enough to motivate me into keeping clutter and mess to a minimum. But what if you were a teenager trapped in a health hazard of a house, unable to invite your friends over lest they find out you lived in filth? What if you weren’t allowed to throw anything away, and spent most of your time and energy planning for the day you could leave home for good?
These questions are the heart of C.J. Omololu’s novel, Dirty Little Secrets. Lucy, the heroine, has already changed schools once because her friends found out about her mom’s illness and its disgusting results. Now she’s more invested than ever in keeping up the illusion of a normal life. However, a horrible accident forces Lucy into the clean-up job from hell, a literal race against time before she ends up on the news as the freak of the week. You’ll need a strong stomach to endure the vivid descriptions of things Lucy finds when she starts taking out the trash. I guarantee, though, that you’ll be fascinated by the care Omololu has put into this portrait of a dysfunctional family and the heartbreaking mental illness that holds its members–even the siblings who have technically “escaped”–in its thrall.
I literally could not put this book down until I reached the end, because I was dying to see how–or if–Lucy got herself out of her predicament. Phrases like “shocking final chapter” have become cliches for a reason, but in this instance it’s true: I never saw the last plot twist coming, and when I finally shut the book I had to take a couple of deep breaths because it was….just….that…creepy. I’m still shuddering, even as I type. Just in case you were wondering why the rest of Lucy’s family didn’t do something to help her out, Omololu addresses those issues, too, demonstrating how families can become self-perpetuating dysfunctional systems instead of the warm, loving havens they are meant to be.
If you’re in a bit of a reading rut, can’t stop watching Hoarders, or are otherwise drawn to psychological horror, order yourself a copy of Dirty Little Secrets today. And when you’ve finished, come track me down so we can talk about it. I’ll be easy to find, as I’ll probably still be in my kitchen, washing the walls and scrubbing the floor.
who will now move on to Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, at Tim’s suggestion