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.