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Rebecca Barrow on family secrets

Rebecca Barrow on family secrets

It’s your birthday, maybe, or the holidays, and you’re looking for the perfect old picture to post—that one where you’re four and still really cute, wearing the Minnie Mouse jumper and reindeer antlers. You find it and you’re about to post it when you notice, for the first time in your life, your mum in the background of the photo, only half in focus. You think how young she looks, and you wonder what she remembers of this moment that you don’t, so you call her—down in the kitchen, or on the phone because you live hours away now, whatever. You call and you ask her, and she remembers that photo and tells you a story you’ve never heard before about those stupid antlers that actually came from a neighbour you’ve forgotten all about, and it’s nice. You remember that your mum was a person before you came along, is still a person separate from you now, and you remind yourself to ask her more questions, another time, about herself.

But what if you asked those questions and she refused to answer? What if she didn’t want to talk about the person she was before you were born, the life she lived before you were in it? What if there was a secret she was desperate to hide, cutting you off from your own history in the process?

Every family has secrets, it’s true. Sometimes they’re the small kind—an aunt who was married once, before she met your uncle, or a falling out between siblings over a sacred recipe. But sometimes they’re big, dark secrets that shaped your family, shaped your life, before you were conscious of such things. But at some point you come to know—not what the secret is, exactly, but that it’s there, that some big event or terrible happening went on and has affected you, is still affecting you, but nobody will tell you what it is.

But it seeps into everything. How you look at your family members—how you ask those question of your mother, when you feel brave enough to try. How it hurts when she closes down again, or tells you to leave it alone, or—worst of all—lies, a flat-out untruth that doesn’t even feel close to real.

In And Don’t Look Back, Harlow’s entire relationship with her mother has been shaped by a secret she’s not allowed to know. But when her mother dies suddenly, all that’s left is for Harlow to go digging and seek out the truth on her own. There are some who say that secrets are best left alone, but I think knowing the truth of ourselves and our families is something we’re all owed. Otherwise, we are left to wonder, and left with relationships buckling under the strain of too many untold things—until it becomes too late to tell them, and we’re left to dig, like Harlow.

And Don’t Look Back was published by Hot Key Books on 3 October 2023

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