Sunday, 8 June 2014

Book review: The Secret Keeper, by Kate Morton

The day I moved stables, my lovely adopted sister (as in, I adopted her in my mind. She's not an actual orphan) bought me this book as a leaving present, having remembered that I really enjoyed Morton's The House at Riverton. 

The Secret Keeper

Before we begin, let me tell you that this book has a shocking, and I mean shocking, twist. My mouth actually fell open and I did a sort-of comedy gasp.

The novel is in four parts, told by Laurel Nicholson, Dorothy Smitham (Laurel's mother) and Vivien Jenkins. The plot revolves around a secret Dorothy has held almost all her life, related to the fateful day her eldest daughter witnessed her murder a man. In Dorothy's old age, she begins to reveal fragments of what happened, but  decides to investigate and find out exactly why her loving mother stabbed a man to death.

Set before, during and after WWII, Dorothy's and Vivien's tales takes place largely during the Blitz (1941). Morton's description of the bombs' effects is stark and thankfully not romanticized - the image of civilians picking their way through the rubble-strewn streets, and the strangely exposed nature of houses with walls missing, where people can watch the intimate happenings of people's privates lives from the roadside, shows how people just had to keep calm and carry on, even though their lives were literally falling apart around them.

What I found most thought-provoking, however, was how Dorothy's boyfriend, Jimmy, questions his role as a war photographer, particularly when his own apartment is hit. Jimmy's desperation to find his WWI veteran father, who suffers memory loss, is devastating - but it cleverly reflects how easily people's role could be reversed. Instead of being at a bomb site to photograph it, Jimmy becomes a victim. This in itself raises an ethical argument over the responsibility of photographing tragic events such as war, and how they should be represented, and even who has the right to represent them.

Morton has many strengths, including writing complex and sometimes unlikable characters - Dorothy being one of them. Her childish plan to seek revenge because Vivien shuns her - you later find out why - and her desperation to climb the social ladder made me think of her as a frivolous, selfish girl, particularly when compared to the resolute and brave Vivien.

The novel became a little slow in the middle, but perhaps this was necessary as so many characters were implicated in finding out the truth about Dorothy Smitham. And trust me, it really is worth finding out.

Kate Morton The Secret Keeper review

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