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Everybody carries a few secrets with them, and sometimes take one or two to the grave. Or else they will yield one or two to their nearest and dearest in the nick of time.
It is 2011, and Dorothy Nicolson, nee Smitham, is dying. Her eldest daughter Laurel, a very successful actress, has long been puzzled by an unsettling - well, shocking - event which she witnessed while playing in her treehouse in the garden one summer's day when she was a sheltered young thing of 16, fifty years earlier. She and her siblings were about to have a picnic-cum-birthday party for Gerald, the youngest of the children, then aged two. Then an odd-looking man suddenly appeared, and...
Although she was only vaguely aware of what happened at the time, the episode has never ceased to haunt her. The police arrived, spoke to her and her parents, and the matter was regarded as over. But as far as Laurel was concerned, that little conversation with the friendly bobby was not real closure. What really occurred? Well, in a sense she knew, because she saw it all - but why? Half a century later, her curiosity is still not appeased.
Although the story - or rather Chapter 1 of the book - starts at 1961, the rest of it darts to and fro. Most of it alternates between 2011 when Laurel is trying to get to the root of the mystery, and 1941, some of the darkest hours of Britain in World War Two, when Dorothy was a young woman on her own who had left her family behind and gone to a new life for herself in bomb-ravaged London, while trying like several million others to avoid the worst that the Luftwaffe could throw at them. So were her boyfriend Jimmy, her friend Vivien (or was she really a friend?) and the latter's husband Henry, who was at that time an up-and-coming young novelist.
Apart from the regular seesaw between past and present, with a sixty-year interval between the two, there is also a brief interlude which takes us back to Australia in 1929. With the help of a few clues and a good deal of intuition, Laurel starts to piece together what has become an astonishing, even quite complex family mystery.
As Dorothy comes out of hospital to spend her last few weeks at home, her mind is plainly wandering but she, in her own way, seems driven to tell Laurel about it and lay the mystery to rest. For this elderly woman the spirit is willing but the body is weak, slowly but surely packing up. A few maternal gasps, plus a convoluted trail which includes an address in London and some research in archives in the British Library, help Laurel to put the last pieces in the jigsaw. What happened to that closely-knit little group in wartime London in the end? For instance, there are some scattered references in print and online, notably Wikipedia, to the career of Henry Jenkins, whose early promise was never quite fulfilled. But whatever became of him?
As the story unfolds between past and present, little clues are dotted around the pages. I thought I had worked out part of the puzzle about two-thirds of the way through, but I wasn't sure - and there was at least one more twist to come a good deal further on. Dorothy herself provides the final answer in what are more or less her last dying words. It is as if she has delivered her final remarkable secret, or rather, confirmed what Laurel had gradually worked out for herself, and now knows she can go to meet her maker.
Kate Morton's powers of description and portraits of the major characters involved, including Laurel's siblings, can hardly be faulted, and she builds the tension up very well. However, I thought this book suffered a little from the all-too-common fault of modern novels of being overlong. During the middle it started to lose some momentum for me, as if events were being piled on top of one another or else padded out too much for the sake of it, without really bringing the narrative forward and keeping the momentum going. Altogether the book is close to 600 pages, and in my view it would have been more effectively told if shortened a little. However, the fact that I held on and stayed to the astonishing end basically says it all.
Kate Morton, one of Australia's foremost modern writers, was born in 1976. This is her fourth novel, the others including 'The House at Riverton' and 'The Forgotten Garden'.
My stumbling on this book was partly the result of finding it in our recent influx of contemporary fiction added to stock at work and being fascinated by the blurb on the back. It was also partly through the recommendation of my wife, who with her workload gets less time for a good book or two than she would like, but recently came across one of Kate Morton's titles and was sufficiently impressed to read all four in fairly quick succession. She did however remark that this one impressed her a little less than the others, on the grounds that she was not really taken with the story so much.
On balance, I enjoyed it, thought the story was very well constructed, and the ending certainly took me by surprise. However I came very close to skimming some of the pages about halfway through in my eagerness to cut to the chase until it started moving again.
The Secret Keeper
A no spoiler review - I aim to entice you to read the novel - not review it so that you don't need to:
The Secret Keeper is Kate Morton's fourth novel and is a fabulous journey through the events that have effected and created a family. The Nicholson Girls are known as fun, happy girls, who had a carefree childhood and upbringing in a rambling old farmhouse, now all grown up and with their younger brother Gerald they are facing the demise and inevitable end of their mother's long and fruitful life. The main character and protagonist Laurel is a well-known actress a craft she no doubt learnt at her mother's knee.
Looking back from 2011 we learn from sixty-six year old Laurel that there was a taint to this seemingly idyllic childhood when Laurel witnessed a terrible death on the lawn when she was a teenager in 1961.
Set between the present and the 1960's unravelling the facts that led to that day Laurel realises is linked to her mother's life as a teenager and young women in the 1930's and '40's. Laurel realises that she needs to know the truth of that wonderful day turned terrible and to do so she must delve into her mother's past. Laurel finds out about her mother Dorothy's life in Coventry and London, from memento's her mother has kept her main clues being the names Jimmy and Vivien.
Told in the third person somehow Morton ensure we know the thoughts and feelings of the characters and I really did feel like I was looking over their shoulders. The timelines are carefully linked to ensure feasibility and continuity within the novel. The reader moves from era to era and back again seamlessly as different chapters cover different times and alternative characters are printed in italic to distinguish the viewpoint.
War torn London is brought to life and the prose and descriptive text is so brilliantly written that you can almost smell the aftermath of the bomb blasts and the fear around you.
We learn that naive ambitions Dorothy is madly drawn to the wealthy Vivien and longs for her lifestyle. Later in the novel though we learn the truth about Vivien's life and it is not as it seems.
Jimmy is Dorothy's boyfriend and a photographer, many of the characters are highly believable and we feel for Jimmy when it becomes apparent that Dolly (Dorothy) is ashamed that he is a photographer for the newspaper rather than an airman.
The story cracks on at a hell of a pace and the pages turn fast as I for one burnt the midnight oil to find out the result of the current "situation" within the story. The events at times are unexpected, yet as the book reaches its climax the reader can take a while to realise that they were all important, they all lead to the truth and the fascinating lives of the characters. Most of the characters are multi-dimensional ensuring they are utterly believable and the book does have its lighter moments and times of humour.
There is suspense, psychology, adventure, mystery and family relationships here all pieced together seamlessly into a cleverly written story around one person's life. The realistic exploration of human nature and relationships over a long fast changing timescale is enthralling and ensures that this is a book that most readers will thoroughly enjoy whatever their preferred genre is.
A thoroughly well researched novel with plenty of historical accuracy as well as excellent characterisation. The fashions and the class system comes across suitably strongly in the 1940's and you can "feel" the changes in the 1960's and present time-sets. The characters are all utterly believable and so well rounded that you feel you are getting to know them as the novel progresses.
Author Kate Morton is the eldest of three sisters born in South Australia her family moved numerous times before settling, finally, on Tamborine Mountain. There Kate spent much of her childhood inventing and playing games of make-believe with her sisters, an obvious inspiration for the English farmhouse idyll of the Nicholson family. Morton now lives with her husband and children in Brisbane. Morton's best known novel to date is the international bestsellers "The House at Riverton" and her other novels in paperback are "The Shifting Fog" and "The Forgotten Garden".
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and found the characters enthralling and believable. The events against realistic historical backdrops were interesting and informative and created interesting little stories within the main storyline that were fascinating and relevant.
I highly recommend this book.
Price and Availability:
UK price for the paperback is £7.99, I bought my copy for £5.99 from Amazon and I am sure it is widely available.
In the present day, 2011, Laurel Nicolson is 66 years old...oh and an Oscar winning actress. She's returned home to be with her sisters, Daphne, Iris, and Rose and her brother Gerry as their mother Dorothy's health begins to rapidly decline. But something has always bothered Laurel, from way back in 1961 when she was just 16 years old, she witnessed her mother stabbing a man to death seemingly to protect herself and baby Gerry who was in her care at the time from him. This man seemed to simply be a random pervert escalating from being a peeping tom to more serious crimes...all except that Laurel heard him call her mother by her name. The police accepted the story at the time and it was swept under the carpet never to be spoken of again, but Laurel realises if she wants answers to what truly happened that day, she needs them now as time is running out fast. But with her mother's mental state also deteriorating she will have to undergo her own investigation, which will not only take her back to that fateful time in the 1960s but also back to the war in the 1940s, during a dark period of her mother's life in London, where Laurel only has the names Jimmy and Vivien to go on. Can she find out what really happened before it is too late, or will she be forever haunted by the events of that day with irrevocable doubt cast over her mother?
"The Secret Keeper (2012)" was written by Kate Morton, an Australian author, with 3 previous novels under her belt including the international bestsellers "The House at Riverton (2006)", "The Forgotten Garden (2008)" and her follow up "The Distant Hours (2010)". I've not read any of her three other books, but I will certainly be looking out for them after reading "The Secret Keeper", which I found to be a highly captivating character-driven mystery story. This is in essence what the story is about, purely uncovering a long buried mystery with very little information to go on and whilst I wouldn't describe it as a thriller or a page-turner, it is certainly enthralling enough to keep your attention throughout with the journey of discovery through time itself throwing out plenty of twists and turns along with way. I found this story to be very clever as it seamlessly interweaved the different perspectives of four main characters through the use of third person narratives, all of which were capable of throwing a completely different light on events we thought were set in stone and turning the story unexpectedly on its head. It sort of reminded me a tiny bit of the film "Vantage Point" where each new perspective adds something different to the story and not all the narrators are reliable.
The book is told in 3 parts - Laurel, Dolly (Dorothy) and then Vivien - where the story is told with the main emphasis being on each girl in their respective parts, although inescapably their stories also featured in the other parts where their stories overlapped with the leading lady of the moment and again this was cleverly done in such an order as to disguise the truth of the story for as long as possible to maximise the suspense and mystery. Jimmy, Dolly's boyfriend, was also an integral character, but he simply featured whenever relevant without his tale diverting the course of the story like the other three. Present day Laurel's story appeared everywhere though, slotting in around big revelations that only we, as the reader, were privy to in order to create a cohesive and flowing story and to prevent unexpected jumps across time and perspectives and this was an extremely successful method in avoiding any potential confusion. It was also interesting to see how Laurel went about her investigation and discovered many of the things that we already knew, and her resourcefulness through finding letters, trawling through microfilm in libraries for newspaper articles, tracking down people that were around at the time of the events during the war was both very plausible as a way of realistically going about exploring history and also did a lot to build up the character of Laurel and really make you root for her.
Kate Morton, whilst having an extremely readable writing style to deliver the thoughts and actions of our characters, was also very adept at bringing the different eras to life - present day was easily recognisable, but it was her descriptions of the 1960s with regards to the way things looked and the general social attitude that felt very realistic (not that I was alive then to judge) and particularly of London set during the war in 1940s which was very vivid and had a lot of historical value in my opinion, by highlighting the constant underlying fear from air raids and the tragedy of pointless loss of life but showing the true British spirit of just getting on with things and by also showcasing things like the London clubs at the time which helped to underline how different life was between the upper and middle/lower classes which I felt really added different layers to the story by transporting us quite convincingly through time and giving us a real sense of the fashion and the different social views of the two eras when compared to our own society.
As I mentioned before, this book was very character-driven and as a result the author had to create big characters that make you feel something for them, whether it be positive or negative, and I felt that Kate Morton again was very successful here in creating very distinct and complex personalities with Laurel as the driving force for the story, but Dolly, Vivien and Jimmy as the main players. Despite the story being told almost entirely from the third person, it was written in such a way that we could get inside the characters heads and understand their motivations and emotions, but cunningly, for the flashbacks, only during their specific parts for our three essential ladies which kept the mystery alive, and so it was hard not to get attached to certain characters and feel affected by the events that happened to them which made for a captivating read since there was a sense of urgency to learn about their fates. This was also why having Laurel's present day quest acting as an interval in between stories worked as such a great plot device to keep you on tenterhooks while waiting for the next big reveal. What was also very intriguing was that characters you may well have liked at first became less appealing as more of the story was revealed and vice versa and it was hard to guess what would could possibly happen next.
For such a serious and intense book, there were in fact quite a few moments of subtle humour, mostly from the wry thoughts of Laurel who had quite a pragmatic way of looking at things and a rather dry and creative turn of phrase (albeit in the third person), as well as through her relationships with her siblings who were all very different from each other, especially Gerry who was a bit of an eccentric chap, but again all these characterisations helped to build up a picture of their family as a whole, predominantly a happy one, and therefore by proxy also the life of their enigmatic mother who is clearly hiding something of epic proportions from her life before she became a Nicolson. So, an interesting focal point of the story (when in the present day) looks at Laurel trying to reconcile the image of her loving mother alongside growing evidence of some potential wrongdoing in the past, and allows for an interesting exploration into the bond between mother and daughter, which adds even more incentive in to solving the mystery with this extra emotional element.
A story full of many unexpected turns of events, pleasingly I don't think the final big revelation at the end was that easy to guess, but there was one moment fairly early on in the story where a little seed was planted in my mind that made me wonder if a certain event had happened which I just couldn't shake loose and eventually I was proved to be right, which almost always never happens in these types of books so that was something quite satisfying. Still, even though I'd guessed it, it didn't take anything away from my enjoyment of the story as I was actually willing it to be true towards the end and was anxious that it wouldn't be, which I think gives an indication of just how involved I got with the characters, so kudos to Kate Morton for creating such compelling characters. So, to summarise "The Secret Keeper" is a clever, neatly written story with a somewhat dark edge to it, tinged with moments of humour but with the focus mainly being on the exploration of human nature and relationships set across three different eras in an enthralling mystery. This is not a thriller, but still manages to keep you gripped through your attachment to the characters, so I would thoroughly recommend this to anyone that likes a good old mystery.