What exactly is the titular secret in “The Deepest Secret”? Chapel Hill-based author Carla Buckley might have us believe that it’s the hit-and-run accident that the main character, Eve, is involved in very early in the book. But that secret is only one of many. The hit-and-run kills one innocent girl and triggers a Rube Goldberg chain reaction in which one secret repeatedly leads to another.
Let’s back up. It’s no secret that Eve, our Jodi Picoult-type protagonist, is a harried mom. Also not a secret: 14-year-old son Tyler suffers from a rare and fatal disease that renders him allergic to daylight.
He lives in a blacked-out room and attends school by Skype.
His father, David, commutes by plane to a demanding job in Washington, D.C. His remoteness is palpable. And Tyler’s sister, Melissa, exists at the edge of the radar, the proverbial and so-called good kid no one needs to worry about. She has her own secrets.
Their world is small by necessity. The family schedule revolves around the precise minute the sun rises and sets. Only in darkness can Tyler emerge to participate in a dim facsimile of real life. Even the neighbors (who have secrets themselves) have been enlisted to help protect Tyler. No streetlamps, no halogen porch lights – also potentially fatal.
If this painfully sheltered lifestyle isn’t enough to cast a depressing shadow over the entire story, then the circumstances surrounding the hit-and-run seal in the misery. The victim is the preteen daughter of Eve’s best friend. Eve stands tight-lipped by Charlotte as she grieves her daughter and unwinds her own family drama.
Tyler, the most interesting and most tragic character, goes through the motions of his antiseptic life.
He finds a support system online among others who share his condition. He rebels quietly, creeping out of the house alone long after dark, sneaking through backyards, learning about the art of night photography, learning about human nature by spying on his neighbors.
If Tyler were the focus, it would be easier to read the story as one of hope rather than despair. He’s an intelligent boy who lives with courage and creativity. But his perspective too often is overshadowed by his mother’s.
As she buries her secret deeper and deeper, she allows everyone around her to weave theories regarding who’s to blame for the young girl’s death. At one point, sister Melissa falls under suspicion.
Still, Eve says nothing. She washes her car and fixes the dent from the wreck. She plasters fliers around the neighborhood. Her mind churns as she weighs every development’s effect on her fragile son.
In her own way, Eve is also only going through the motions. Her friend’s pain barely registers. On the interior, she’s hysterical. Her only goal is to protect Tyler at all costs.
Clearly, Buckley is comfortable with secrets as a plot-driver; her two prior novels, “Invisible” and “The Things That Keep Us Here,” are peppered with them. But secret-keeping usually leads to truth and redemption in popular literature – Sloan Wilson’s novels come to mind – and catharsis is elusive here.
Tyler, without his mother, is a contemplative survivor. The rest of the cast simply dissolves.
If “The Deepest Secret” were simply Tyler’s story, it would grandly succeed in illustrating how isolating it is when meaningful connection to the world is largely limited to the Internet. But with Eve in control of the story, it functions as a parable about the potential for disaster when helicopter parenting is taken to dangerous extremes.