“RURAL ENGLAND, a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, a summer’s day at the start of the nineteen sixties.”
THUS BEGINS The Secret Keeper, a new novel by Kate Morton (Atria Books, 2012, 496 pages), a book whose Edenesque beginning finds fourteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson in her hideawy tree house, while her sisters romp playfully beneath her. The spell cast by the English countryside is soon rent, however, when Laurel witnesses the shocking death of a stranger — at her mother’s hand.
The nature of the threat posed by the stranger is unclear, but the threat was real enough to allow the death to be ruled justifiable; Laurel witnessed it, and spoke to the police about it. Everything settled down after that, but for Laurel the questions never went away.
Why? It was something that was said before the blow was struck. Something that led her to believe that the man who lay dead in their yard was not a stranger.
This is a novel with many threads that are woven expertly by Morton, an Aussie who has graced the New York Times bestsellers lists with books like The Forgotten Garden and The Distant Hours. The reader is led down labyrinthine ways, from the present to the past, as the nagging sense of a horrible wrong leads Laurel to seek out the secret that her mother has held since before she was born. At her mother’s deathbed, Laurel, now a successful actress, is determined to find answers to the mystery that has clouded her existence since the day her mother took a life
The story takes us back to the Blitz, that hideous scar in a nation’s memory that has never completely healed over. In the early 70s, I spent a January near London. I can still remember walking to the West Kensington tube stop, passing rows of Victorian houses–and after every so many of them, a small park. I later learned that the “parks” were on lots that once held houses, houses that had been hit by bombs thirty years before. The bomb blasts and the craters left in their wake have haunted literature ever since, from Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (1951) to Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001). Greene’s novel is, in my estimation, brilliant; McEwan’s, compelling. Morton’s Secret Keeper I would place nearer to Greene on this ad hoc spectrum of great books.
London, 1941, is the war-torn city where Laurel finds the first traces of her mother, Dorothy. She also learns of another woman, Vivien, whose dark secrets are slowly uncovered; and a young photographer named Jimmy, who is the beloved of Dorothy. Through interviews, journals, news clippings, and conversations Laurel slowly, painfully, and artfully pieces together the story of her mother, her father, and the reason for the stranger’s death on her farm which changed her life forever. There is suspense at every turn–we frequently know enough to feel concern, but we don’t always know what we think we do.
This is one of the most beautifully plotted and engaging novels I have read in years. Morton is a terribly erudite and gifted writer, one with insights into the cavernous hearts of human beings whose obsessions are not always rational and whose responses to slights real or imagined can have unanticipated and cruel consequences.
Brilliant. That’s the only word I can think of for The Secret Keeper.