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I’ll be honest. When I started reading Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley I wasn’t entirely sure whether it was being deliberately satirical and funny or not. I decided to believe it was and, having now spent some time Googling interviews with the author, I’ve realised that Danyl Mclauchlan is the owner of one of those incredibly dry humours that deadpans its way through its best jokes. And that, really, sums up Unspeakable Secrets.
If you’re a fan of that kind of dry deadpan humour you are probably going to enjoy this book. The protagonist, Danyl, is a thoroughly inept writer who can barely manage to hang on to a pair of trousers as he stumbles from one mishap to the next. He encounters spotty cultists and Russian faith healers, often while wearing ill-fitting clothing with which he has absconded.
And yes, you read that right. Danyl named this inept misadventuring young man after himself; this is just one of those ‘best jokes’ I mentioned back there in the first paragraph. Danyl (the character) is the anti-Mary-Sue. He is a deliberate subversion of that author who essentially writes the best most fantasy version of themselves into their novels. In an interview in The Listener, Danyl says:
“I’d been reading all these various thrillers that inspired the book, and one thing I noticed was the main characters often really seemed like the author’s male fantasy about themselves. […] The heroes were brilliant, and very brave, and incredibly attractive to all the female characters. And they had very similar jobs and backgrounds to the authors of the book. The author is an academic so the hero is an academic; the author is a business journalist so the hero is a business journalist … So I decided to do the opposite, and write a book in which the hero was essentially the author, and didn’t have any of these attractive qualities. Because I know lots of writers and journalists and academics and very few of them are incredibly brave or sexually irresistible.”
The Aro Valley itself is almost a character in this book. I’m relatively new to Wellington, and don’t know it that well myself, but I get the strong sense that if you lived there you would recognise Mclauchlin’s Aro Valley like you do that old friend from university who never quite outgrew his student phase: with fondness and a certain amount of resigned amusement. I’m not sure the real Aro Valley is quite so chock full of crazy cultists as the one in the novel, but I can imagine it to be true, which probably means the book has done its job.
It’s a great time, really. I found myself obsessively turning my electronic pages, and finding reasons to take time out of my day to curl up with this story a little more. And then I discovered there is a sequel! Which made me a happy reader. If you’re familiar with the Valley, if you like your humour dry and your heroes anti, if you enjoy a “classic Kiwi comic mystery erotic horror adventure novel”, this is definitely worth picking up.
And when you’re done with it, you can read the sequel, Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley. I intend to.