'All Her Little Secrets' asks whether we can reinvent ourselves
Wanda M. Morris' All Her Little Secrets is a carefully constructed thriller wrapped in a narrative about racism, gentrification, and being the only Black person in an all-white environment.
It's also a story about how we can move away from home and try to change who we are, but we're almost always unable to escape the past.
Ellice Littlejohn grew up with her mom and younger brother Sam in the small town of Chillicothe, Georgia. Her father abandoned her pregnant mother, they were poor, her brother was always getting in trouble, her mom had a drinking problem, and Ellice got pregnant as a teenager. Despite all that, she managed to turn her life around by moving away to go to Coventry Academy in Virginia — and then getting a law degree from Yale. Now, she has a high-paying job in Atlanta as a corporate attorney at Houghton Transportation Company.
Everything is going great and Ellice even has time for a fun fling with Michael, a married man who also happens to be her boss and Houghton's general counsel. Then, Michael kills himself in his office and everything changes. Ellice finds the body, but runs away and lets someone else find and report it. Before she's had time to grieve — she's promoted to general counsel and given Michael's office and a significant raise. Then the problems start. Ellice is the only Black person at the top of the company and Michael didn't commit suicide; he was murdered. Also, no one has — or wants to share — information on the last deal Michael was working on, there's a lot of money in foreign accounts, Ellice's brother was seen entering the building with her ID the morning was Michael murdered, and Michael's widow, who knew about the affair, asks Ellice to help her find out what happened to her husband.
Morris packed a lot into this novel and pulled it off brilliantly. The pacing is enjoyable and the character development is superb, especially given the number of secondary characters that appear in the story. However, the most impressive thing about All Her Little Secrets is that it manages to be a clever thriller while simultaneously being an unapologetically Black novel about life as an educated Black woman in corporate America. At the beginning of the novel we learn there are ongoing protests outside Houghton's building because they don't hire people of color. Once she becomes general counsel, Ellice lets those in power know she thinks lawsuits are coming. Despite all that, she's never treated equally and some consider her the company owner's "little experiment in diversity." And that's only the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
All Her Little Secrets works on two levels. On the surface, there are bodies piling up and a shady deal that left no paper trail except for a quarter billion dollars being distributed into other accounts. However, right underneath that is something that's much more than a legal thriller about white-collar crime; this is a narrative about being a Black woman surrounded by white men, many of whom are racist. From Ellice's hair to the language people use around her, Morris showcases a collection of microaggresions that are as real as they are awful. And this critique of racism doesn't end there. Ellice encounters racism everywhere. For example, right after discussing her situation at work with an old friend from college while shopping, she steps into a store and asks if they have an outfit in her size. The store employee responds by telling her how much the outfit costs:
"Racism is exhausting and embarrassing, even in front of your best friend, who is also Black. It's as if there's a stealth undercurrent of unwarranted assumptions, Patty slides, and dismissals always ready to pop up and reinforce the idea that people of color aren't good enough, they aren't welcome. The reality was that I earned enough money in one day to pay a week of her wages. But still, she felt entitled enough to conclude that I couldn't afford to buy a dress she was paid by the hour to sell."
All Her Little Secrets is an impressive debut that establishes Morris as a talented new voice in crime fiction. It's also a book that delivers a healthy dose of truth, and not all of it is racial: "Every lie you tell, every secret you keep, is a fragile little thing that must be protected and accounted for. One misstep, one miscalculation, and your safe little treasures can topple the perfect life you've built around them." The angry Black woman stereotype is horrendous, but the angry Black woman in this novel is different; we see why she's angry, tired, scared, and eager to change things, and we understand it and get angry along with her. That anger is not something you quickly forget.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.