Review: You Need Me

Sharon Bairden – You Need Me (Blog Tour)

Published by Red Dog Press, paperback £8.99 (ebook £3.99, hardback £13.99). I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Sean at Red Dog Press for inviting me to take part in the blog tour. Check out their online store at: www.reddogpress.co.uk/shop

First, the official blurb: “Your secret didn’t die with me.” The mysterious note tucked inside the pages of a recently returned book leaves librarian Morag McLaughlin chilled to the bone. She knows it was meant for her. Someone out there knows her darkest secrets and they could destroy everything. Torn apart from her own family, she will stop at nothing to create a perfect new one. Why are they all so ungrateful? She’s only looking after them… Isn’t she?

Sharon Bairden’s debut novel, Sins Of The Father, came out last November, a story darker and scarier than the winter weather and the state of the world back then. But while writers don’t generally have as much of a problem with “second album syndrome” as musicians, it’s always interesting to see where a novelist will go after that first burst of inspiration, particularly when they are not creating a series. The answer in You Need Me is: back into the darkness – and then some.

Morag McLaughlin is a librarian, middle-aged, sensible, frumpy and with a habit of collecting vulnerable people and trying to help them. But she carries a world of secrets in her battered handbag, and when a note drops out of a recently-returned book – “Your secret didn’t die with me” – she knows it is meant for her. (What an explosive moment! And what a curious turn of phrase…)

We are then introduced to the rest of the cast of characters: Ronnie is struggling with his mother’s demands and his mental demons. Susan fled her old life with daughter Lily, but is struggling more than she expected to start again. Alan is used by “friends” and finds escape in drugs. All three have been taken under Morag’s wing and find the library a place of support and safety, including the “Tuesday Club” – formed by Morag for people who need support.

Meanwhile, young coffee shop worker Jess – bored, overworked, underpaid – see the others as they make their way to the meeting. But Jess, despite her loneliness after only moving to the town recently, has been told she is not welcome… Her view of Morag is thus rather different, and we gather that all is not quite as it seems. It turns out that, in the library, Morag is in control but at home we see the truth: she’s as much in need of help as any of the other Tuesday Club members, she just knows how to hide and put on a good face for the world.

Reading about these vulnerable, damaged people is at times difficult, because Bairden has done her research and created a complete picture of each of them, both through the eyes of the world and from the inside too. Her attention to detail is heart-breaking – and all the more so for being careful to remain unsentimental and simply offer the realities without exaggeration or hand-wringing. I frequently say the best crime fiction deals with tough social issues, and You Need me is full of them – but it’s all about people, not statistics or a pontificating authorial voice.

These people have formed a community of sorts – or rather, Morag has formed them into something that could be called a family, albeit one filled with dysfunction and manipulation. In this, You Need me continues the idea from Sins Of The Father that pain and damage can be passed down the generations, though here it’s monstrous mothers who are the source of the suffering.

We finally learn more about Morag and why she is so desperate to create a perfect family for herself, though she has no idea how other people do this thanks to her strange upbringing. There are some horrendous and tragic past events that fair chill the blood of the reader, but while these explain some present actions – and allow us to understand, thanks to Bairden’s gift for empathy – they do not excuse them.

The pain and anger build to a reveal that pushes hard at the reader’s suspension of disbelief, but wins out in the way it is handled, and in the way it turns into a resolution, drawing a firm line under the past and allowing a new future to be a real possibility.

Morag and Jess are contrasting characters, but as the focus of the novel tightens in on them we get to both examine the differences between them but also note the similarities. Both put on a “public face” but are fragile behind it; both are struggling with memories, good and bad, of their mothers. Jess has a bullish and short-tempered side when she wants something, where Morag tends to be quietly manipulative, but Jess is as lonely underneath as Morag, and while neither woman is likable, they can be relatable and I have sympathy for them both at various points.

And among the many other things this novel is – psychological thriller, pure horror, social commentary – it’s also a love letter to libraries and a plea for them to remain, via a clear-eyed picture of their importance to a community for reasons far beyond the simple lending of books. It’s warm, free, welcoming; a refuge, a safe space, a source of emotional support and practical help.

This is another audacious novel from Bairden, more confident in its style and its varied voices and more sure-footed in walking the path through its twisted narrative than Sins Of The Father. It’s chilling from start to finish, and if you’re looking for a light tale filled with joy and humour, I wouldn’t recommend you pick this book up. But if you like something dark with grit, realism and empathy, then You Need Me should be on your TBR.

By day Sharon Bairden manages a small local independent advocacy service and has a passion for human rights; by night she has a passion for all things criminal. She blogs at Chapter In My Life (https://chapterinmylife.wordpress.com/) and is delighted to have crossed over to the writer side of the fence. Sharon lives on the outskirts of Glasgow, has two grown-up children, a grandson, a Golden Labrador and a cat. She spends most of her spare time doing all things bookish, from reading to attending as many book festivals and launches as she can.

You can follow the author on Twitter here: @sbairden
Find my review of Sins Of The Father here: crimebookgirl.com/2020/12/02/review-sins-of-the-father
And find Sharon’s Five By Five interview here: crimebookgirl.com/2021/09/16/interview-sharon-bairden

Don’t forget to check out all the other reviews on the blog tour!

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