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Sunday, October 14, 2012

"The Secret Keeper" by Kate Morton (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

INTRODUCTION: The Secret Keeper is such a stunning novel that it catapulted Kate Morton from the rank of top historical fiction writers of today to my very short list of huge favorite writers period.

Iain Pears' Stone's Fall is one earlier book that I have reviewed and to which The Secret Keeper has some strong similarities in the sense that you have to read the book at least twice, once before you know and once after you know - know what, well that would be telling - just to pick up the clues, see how events you thought meant one thing, meant something different etc...

"During a summer party at the family farm in the English countryside, sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson has escaped to her childhood tree house and is happily dreaming of the future. She spies a stranger coming up the long road to the farm and watches as her mother speaks to him. Before the afternoon is over, Laurel will witness a shocking crime. A crime that challenges everything she knows about her family and especially her mother, Dorothy—her vivacious, loving, nearly perfect mother. 

Now, fifty years later, Laurel is a successful and well-regarded actress living in London. The family is gathering at Greenacres farm for Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday. Realizing that this may be her last chance, Laurel searches for answers to the questions that still haunt her from that long-ago day, answers that can only be found in Dorothy’s past. 

Dorothy’s story takes the reader from pre–WWII England through the blitz, to the ’60s and beyond. It is the secret history of three strangers from vastly different worlds—Dorothy, Vivien, and Jimmy—who meet by chance in wartime London and whose lives are forever entwined. The Secret Keeper explores longings and dreams and the unexpected consequences they sometimes bring. It is an unforgettable story of lovers and friends, deception and passion that is told—in Morton’s signature style—against a backdrop of events that changed the world."
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The setup of The Secret Keeper is similar to the author's earlier novels though this time it acquires an extra layer and while the modern (2011) part is occasionally slower, the 1938-1941 parts are pure spellbinding.

In 1961, 16 year old Laurel has an idyllic life with her four younger siblings on her family isolated farm, when a stranger comes there and Laurel sees him greeting her mother Dorothy by name and telling her something in a low voice, while she immediately stabs him to death.

Later in the police investigation, Laurel recounts the scene omitting the greeting part and corroborates her mother's story: stranger attacks her, tries to grab baby Gerald who Dorothy was carrying at the time, self defense etc, so the case is closed. Being 1961 and a gentler, politer time, the press does not make a big fuss.

Life goes on, the incident is forgotten, her parents continue to have a long and happy marriage until her father's death some ten years previous to the 2011 present. However today, 50 years later, Laurel ennobled grand dame of British cinema is visiting her mother who is close to 90 and slipping in and out of lucidity at her nursing home and she starts remembering the incident vividly while becoming determined to understand it until her mother passes away and it's too late.

The killing was clearly tied to her mother's life before she became Dorothy Nicolson in 1945, and actually before she came from London in May 1941 to work as maid in the Nicolson household while never returning to visit London since. Also throughout her long life, Dolly kept a lid on her history beyond the bare facts: left Coventry for London against her parents' wishes in the late 30's, worked as maid to a rich old woman and was involved in the war effort, while her parents and younger brother died in the infamous Coventry bombing of 1940.

And from here The Secret Keeper starts moving between the past and the present when Laurel discovers that the intruder was a formerly successful writer, Henry Jenkins, who had started his descent into drinking and obscurity - and some said madness - in 1941 after the death in a London bombing of his wife Vivien. Vivien seemed to have been an acquaintance of Dolly despite the huge social gulf between them as she was quite rich: an Australian orphan with traumatic memories of her own, raised by her English schoolmaster uncle of whom Henry, older by some 20 years than her and from lower class origins, was a protegee.

There is a curious disconnect between the frivolous Dolly Smithan of 1938-1941, her desires to mingle with the rich and famous which estranges her from her photographer boyfriend Jimmy and the current Dorothy Nicolson, content mother of four and living a happy, prosperous but not particularly glamorous family life, but the dramatic pages inserted just after the 1961 stabbing, pages that show Vivien and Dolly's last meeting in 1941 hint at the main reason for the change:

"‘That’s enough.’ Vivien cupped Dolly’s face firmly between both hands, and this time it didn’t sting one bit. Her eyes were filled with kindness. ‘You love Jimmy, I know that; and he loves you, too—my God, I know that. But you have to listen to me.’

There was something eminently calming about the other woman’s gaze and Dolly managed to block out the noise of a diving plane, the answering ack-ack fire, the horrible thoughts of buildings and people being crushed into pulp.

The pair of them huddled together and Dolly listened as Vivien said, ‘Go to the railway station tonight and buy yourself a ticket. You’re to— ’. A bomb landed nearby with a thundering crump and Vivien stiffened before continuing quickly: ‘Get on that train and ride it all the way to the end of the line. Don’t look back. Take the job, move again, live a good life.’"

And so it goes and the more we delve into the past - both with Laurel who starts investigating Dorothy's life in London and with the young Dorothy and later Vivien's POV's, the more things start coming together into what had become a tragedy from misunderstood motives and different social expectations; but there is still something weird going on that bugs Laurel to the end...

"Vivien. The name did something strange to Laurel. Her skin went hot and cold, and her heart speeded up so she could feel her pulse beating in her temples. A dizzying series of images flashed across her brain—a glistening blade, her mother’s frightened face, a red ribbon come loose. Old memories, ugly memories, that the unknown woman’s name had somehow un-leashed –‘Vivien,’ she repeated, her voice louder than she in-tended. ‘Who is Vivien?’"

The Secret Keeper, my top novel of 2012 as of now, is just awesome stuff and a book to be read many times for atmosphere, details, hints - even when you know what's what and the novel is as powerful if not more - not to speak of Kate Morton's narrative pull that makes one compulsively turn the pages.


shaneo52 said...

Your #1 book huh, Liviu? Man, It must be good! I want to read this.

Liviu said...

it is the kind of book that deeply appeals to me - narrative pull and a feat of writing that is really hard to achieve - what is involves huge spoilers, so will not add more - Brian D'Amato achieved a variant of it in Sacrifice Game, while Iain Spears achieved slightly different variants in an Instance of the Fingerpost and Stone's fall

Liviu said...

and to add - as for #1, well Hydrogen Sonata was excellent but too Excession-like in characters so it will shake out between this and Sharps most likely - Garden of Evening Mists which would be 4th contender is excellent too but still do not see it as #1, while of the still upcoming 2012, right now the only one I see as a contender is Red Knight

shaneo52 said...

Right on, Liviu. Its just cool to see you praise a good book. I have to read me some Morton!

shaneo52 said...

hey Liviu, my friend in Australia got this for me and it just showed up in the mail...has the UK cover, 600 page doorstopper. I need to get on this one!

Anonymous said...

Sorry I cannot agree with you about this book. There are just too many glaring holes. Jimmy is supposed to be loyal honest and true. Those are the things everyone loves about him. Do you not think it odd that during his stint in prison and then afterwards when he was sent to war he did not write to "Dolly". He knew she was going to take the job at the sea-side. He didn't know she was dead. It seems so very out of character for him not to try and find her when he got back from the war. Also. Henry would surely have known his wife's body.. even if her face was crushed.. and her clothes etc. he would have realised it wasn't Vivien. He would also have known that Jimmy was still alive and would have pursued him when he got back from the war. Whilst the book was ok, there are just too many things that just would not have happened.

Liviu said...

I kind of disagree about the holes - the only one that is arguable is about Henry and Vivien's body but we do not know exactly (and we are not told) how such was handled and what was precisely the state, while as clothes go i think the author makes a point how unusual they were for Vivien as she was in a semi-disguise; the rings and the general shape may have been all that could have been really identifiable, while all the time the similarity between the two is repeatedly emphasized(even Jimmy could not distinguish them from a distance in 1945 when he finally goes to the seaside but stays away)

As the rest, why would Henry know Jimmy is not dead at least until 1945? Not even his father knew as presumably after the jail he was sent to a stricter army unit where he was granted no leave during the war

As for Jimmy not writing - maybe he realized he is not sure about how he feels anymore, maybe the near death experience shook him. maybe he was afraid to let people know he was alive; lots of explanation as people do not behave logically especially that hardship - war, prison etc - tends to change people a lot and they may not want to immediately deal with the past; it made sense for him to visit after the war and even then tentatively (which would chime with the first hypothesis above) and leave when he saw "Dolly" with a man on the beach, while later when he is finally settled himself, to sort of want to "close the account" so to speak and finally visit Dolly and revisit the past

Liviu said...

And actually there is one more thing that corroborates the tale as Henry goes - he may simply have not wanted to see Vivien's body expecting to inherit her and remain rich while getting rid of an inconvenience, only to have a nasty surprise when the law firm tells her Vivien left the house to Jimmy's father, and while he may or may not have suspected Vivien is alive, what can he do as there is no DNA testing etc

Anonymous said...

Excuse me? She killed him in one fell swoop with a CAKE knife? Cake knives are not sharp. And who writes direct quotes in a journal entry as we are to believe Kitty did? And Jimmy, are we to believe there was a glorious love between him and Dolly? Half the time Dolly was embarrassed by his common ways. ??? Clunky!

Anonymous said...

Sometimes we can't see the woods for the trees. Holes, yes, what does it really matter? The story is spellbinding & real to life. Morton has a way of storytelling that is fresh & appealing, full of warmth & love. Her characters are well thought out, especially the differences between the siblings, & their flaws as well. Just finished The Secret Keeper, 3rd book read. Fabulous reads, all of them. Mike

Liviu said...

I agree with the above comment for the simple reason that sometimes when we read books, we demand full logical explanations and real life doesn't work like that as even a casual perusal of recent headlines about say crimes, or disputes etc shows

And there is nothing in this book that breaks my suspension of disbelief; are there some unlikely things, well sure, but after all the book is about unlikely events too

Joella Moy said...

I loved this book and read it in one day. Aliens could have landed in my room and I would not have noticed. All the queries have been answered for me except one. When Henry is aware that Vivien has left everything to Jimmy's Dad why did he not contest the will? He was her next of kin and Jimmy's dad had not money to fight the ruling in court. When he was aware that Jimmy returned from the war why did he not have him killed then.

Thank you Joella

Liviu said...

Regarding the will, the one thing that comes to mind is that Vivien had some proof about the abuse that she left with her lawyers with a "you accept this, we do not publish" clause and Henry could not afford the disclosure

Regarding Jimmy, why would Henry do it then - with the risk entailed now in peacetime, Henry not the "personality" of before etc

He may have looked Jimmy up at some point, but Jimmy had nothing to do anymore with Dolly/Vivien by war's end

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