The Secret Baby Room
PublisherBarbican Press
Date Published02 July 2015
Price£ 8.99

The Secret Baby Room

by D.D. Johnston

Soon after Claire and her husband move to Manchester, she sees a woman and a baby in a derelict tower block that’s due for imminent demolition.


Claire Wilson and her husband Dan have moved back to Manchester to the area where Dan grew up. It’s all right for Dan as he’s got a good job, but Claire had to give up her job in the records department of a hospital, and she’s at a distinctly loose end. She’s also trying to get over an early miscarriage. But putting that behind her is harder than she expects.

Not long after they move in, Claire sees a woman bottle-feeding a baby on the eighth floor of a derelict tower block near their house that’s due for imminent demolition. In an attempt to get to know her neighbours, Claire goes to a meeting at Morgana’s house to discuss attempts to prevent a mobile phone mast being built in the area. Morgana, a practising Wiccan, drops various oblique hints to Claire about problems in the area, all revolving in some way around children.

There are suggestions of birth defects, miscarriages and then when a baby’s mummified body is discovered in a suitcase in the basement of an old house being renovated, Claire finds herself caught up in a dangerous web of half-formed suspicions and deceit that start to drive a large web between her and her husband. Add to the mix Claire’s other neighbour, alcoholic, unstable Lianne, who had a stillbirth nine months ago, and things start to become even more volatile.

It has to be said that there aren’t really a lot of sympathetic characters in The Secret Baby Room.  Claire’s a neurotic 28-year-old who fusses about grey hairs and excess weight, Morgana is little better than a stereotype of a hippy-dippy pagan, and it’s hard to see why anyone would put up with her passive-aggressive bullshit for very long at all, Lianne gets drunk at the drop of a hat and vomits in Claire’s back garden, and Dan is just plain boring.

But despite the fact that none of the characters are people anyone with half an ounce of sense would want to spend any time with, there is something undoubtedly compelling about their antics, even if it is a bit like watching an episode of train-wreck TV at its worst. I found myself almost as caught up with Claire’s obsession as she was.

It’s in the minor characters that DD Johnston, a lecturer in creative writing, excels, from graffiti artist Seth, who works at a care home for the elderly, and paints a sinister figure of a baby staked with a crucifix everywhere he can, to fanciable builder Lucasz, who found the baby’s body in the suitcase. I could have done without the two bored police officers, though, who refuse to take any of Claire’s claims seriously and came close to taking the prize for the most-irritating characters in what was otherwise a pretty strong field. And no one who teaches writing should be falling into the WPC trap in this day and age! Will writers do us all a favour and consign that particular mistake to the dustbin of history, where it belongs, rather than constantly perpetuate the same error.

I constantly veered between feelings of irritation and intrigue while I was reading The Secret Baby Room, so I suspect that the author has therefore done a good job. The conclusion came together surprisingly well, despite veering very close to needing ‘show not tell’ writing in the margin in large letters in red pen.

By the end, the intrigue ended up outweighing the irritation factor, although at times it was a close run thing. If you like watching The Jeremy Kyle Show, this is very definitely one for you.

Reviewed 18 July 2015 by Linda Wilson