Monday, October 15, 2012

Book review: The Secret Keeper, by Kate Morton

To my mind, Kate Morton remains unsurpassed at crafting multilayered generational mysteries. Or maybe they should be called historical sagas filled with drama and intrigue?  Either way, this is my favorite type of book, and when paired with her complex characters, sensitive use of language, and intricate plotting in which family secrets are tantalizingly revealed bit by bit, the result is literary magic.

Morton is not only a superb storyteller, but the concept of "story" itself threads throughout her work. In The Secret Keeper, the protagonists must come to terms with the stories they've heard and told themselves— ones which shaped their outlook on the world—and decide whether or not (or how much) to believe them.

And as the novel's cover and first chapter both indicate, every good story begins with a house.

Greenacres Farm, a rustic dwelling in rural Suffolk, is the longtime home of the Nicolsons. Laurel Nicolson, her three younger sisters, and their baby brother Gerry spent a contented childhood there, comforted by the knowledge that their parents adored them as well as each other. Only one oddball incident spoils Laurel's remembered idyll.

In 2011, Laurel, a famous actress in her sixties, returns to Greenacres for a celebration of her frail mother Dorothy's 90th birthday. While there, seeing decades-old mementos and faced with Dorothy's wandering memories, she finds herself drawn to revisit the summer of 1961. As a dreamy young woman of sixteen relishing a quiet moment in her tree house, Laurel had observed a crime as shocking as it was inexplicable. Although events were resolved to the police’s satisfaction, Laurel has trouble reconciling the violent scene with her image of her beautiful, loving, good-natured mother.

Seeking reassurance that their happy life wasn't based on a lie, she feels the clues to what happened must reside somewhere in her mother's past. Laurel has little to go on: a WWII-era photo of Dorothy and another woman, their arms linked and their hair swept into Victory rolls; an old book inscribed to Dorothy by a friend named Vivien; and the name of the stranger who was killed in her family’s meadow. "Who are you, Dorothy?" Laurel wonders. "Who were you, before you became Ma?" 

This motif, the perceived rift between people of different generations, has echoes within several other situations in the book. “It was impossible to believe that the old woman upstairs had ever been that young or striking,” thinks the younger Dorothy—or Dolly, as she called herself then—about her employer, an embittered aristocrat who was hurt by love. This point may get a little overfamiliar with each repeated instance, but there's truth in it.

Morton’s war-ravaged London, depicted with atmospheric flair, is a treacherous place swirling with heightened emotions, class-conscious socialites, bright spots of glamorous decadence, and the ever-present possibility of death or betrayal. As the plot switches among different periods, from Dolly's love life during the Blitz to Laurel’s research in 2011 and also to instances before and after the war, each strand builds upon another, and the mystery gathers momentum. Each discovery leads to yet more secrets. The final reveal, once it comes, is absolutely worth staying up late for. (Raising my hand here... I finished it at 1am last Sunday.)

Over the course of three hugely successful novels, which all have similar themes, Kate Morton has established herself as the preeminent author of contemporary Gothics. As with her previous books, though, the growing sense of dread within The Secret Keeper comes not from supernatural happenings but from the unearthing of long-ago tragedies and knowledge of the harm that people can heedlessly inflict upon one another. No eerie embellishments are needed; the past is haunting enough.

The Secret Keeper is published tomorrow by Atria in hardcover (481pp, $26.99 US or $29.99 Canada).  In the UK, Mantle is the publisher (600pp, hb, £16.99), and in Australia, it appears from Allen & Unwin on November 1st at $35.

24 comments:

  1. I was eagerly anticipating this novel prior to reading your review, but now I'm even more excited to start it! I can only hope my pre-ordered copy doesn't take too long to get here.

    As always, wonderful review.

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    1. Thanks, Melissa - I hope your copy arrives soon too. Set aside a good amount of time for it once it does! I started it late on Friday and read it almost continuously (with breaks for sleep and meals) through early Sunday morning.

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  2. Thanks for the review.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Mystica!

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  3. I've been impressed with every book Kate Morton has written -- they are keepers on my shelf. I've pre-ordered The Secret Keeper, too, and can't wait to get lost in the story! Thank you for the thoughtful review.

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    1. I hope you'll enjoy it, Joanne. I wasn't sure until the very end whether I'd rank this as highly as I do The Distant Hours... but now I think they're about even.

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  4. I have this to read, but haven't gotten to it yet. Maybe I'll move it up the list. I usually love these kinds of generational novels and you make it sound so good.

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    1. The larger part of this book takes place during WWII, so it should be right up your alley!

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  5. It's a decade after the period I write about, but there's just something about the 40's, and specifically the Blitz in London, that evokes such intensity....

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    1. It touches on the Blitz in Coventry as well, and you get an excellent sense of the danger everyone was living under.

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  6. It sounds wonderful - I love Kate Morton. Tick! On the list.

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    1. I've read all of her books! The Distant Hours may be my favorite, but only slightly. After finishing this one, I reread parts of it to see how it was all put together. It really was very cleverly constructed.

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  7. I cannot wait to read this book!!! It will be my first Kate Morton book!

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    1. I envy you, getting to experience her books for the first time. I put off reading this one for a few weeks, since I knew it would be another couple of years before there was another!

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  8. Anonymous10:03 AM

    How about a sub-sub-genre of "House Books"? ASHENDEN by Elizabeth Wilhide is out in January. Both of these titles are on NetGalley and/or Edelweiss (forgot which).

    And yes, the WWII content should increase readership even more.

    Sarah Other Librarian

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    1. I've heard about Ashenden. (Mixed reviews so far.) It and Distant Hours - and House at Riverton, for that matter - could fit in the "house books" category. This one starts off with a lengthy description of Greenacres, and the crime took place there, but most of the action happens in London.

      I agree on the WWII content. One to add to the list!

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    2. Anonymous3:41 PM

      Just read that in PW . . . and have since come across two titles to be pub in April 2013 - BRISTOL HOUSE by Beverly Swerling (a departure from her NYC historical fiction) and THE HOUSE AT THE END OF HOPE STREET by Menna Van Praag - both at Edelweiss.

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    3. That's the one. I saw it yesterday and thought hmmmm. Reviews from the UK are quite positive, though. I may have to read it for myself!

      I meant to check out the real Bristol House when I was overseas but forgot. The weather was terrible in London, which didn't entice me to spend much time walking around at leisure.

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  9. Thanks for your great review! I'm also in awe of Morton's writing, and this book was not disappointing. see my "culinary" review on it: http://wordsandpeace.com/2012/10/01/2012-48-review-the-secret-keeper/
    and I just posted questions for a read-along on The House at Riverton:
    http://wordsandpeace.com/2012/10/16/read-along-on-the-house-at-riverton-part-1/

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    1. What a cool way to present a review! I also agree that the ingredients are similar for each book she writes, and yet the resulting concoction is different each time.

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  10. Hi, nice to meet you. I am one of your newest members to your blog and I noticed that we share a love of historical fiction. I will be keeping up with your blog and hope you will join me at mine:

    girllostinabook.blogspot.com

    Hope to see you there. Happy reading.
    Kimberlee

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    1. Hi Kimberlee, thanks for the note, and I see you're another fan of Follett's. I just signed up as a follower to your blog too.

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  11. Anonymous4:58 PM

    I just finished this book, and it's one of those that take you by surprise... It changed my feeling and point of view toward each character throughout, and really rattled me at the end. I have every one of Kate's books, but this one is probably her best. Or maybe it was just the one I connected the most to. This book elicts such raw emotion, and you really can't help but feel everything the characters are feeling.
    Beautiful.

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    1. I loved the ending. I was enjoying the book just fine before then, but wow. Know what you mean about seeing your feelings about each character change as you read, too.

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