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lip lit: The Secret Keeper

I’m always suspicious of overly thick books. I pick them up with caution, wondering if the author really needed so many words to tell the story. I wonder if the writer simply wished to indulge themselves by constructing a five-hundred page tome, filling it every little detail, and leaving nothing for the reader to discover for themselves. I often pick up books and think to myself that the story could have been written in half the number of words, and be so much better for it. Yet it is clear from the beginning of The Secret Keeper that Kate Morton hasn’t expelled unnecessary words onto the page. At over five-hundred pages, it’s a big book, but with such an ambitious and captivating story, it’s a credit to the author that she didn’t exceed one thousand pages in crafting it.

Laurel Nicholson is a famous English actress, who witnessed something terrible as a sixteen year old. Now, grown up and returning to her childhood home to help care for her mother during her mother’s final few weeks of life, Laurel becomes determined to unravel the secrets hidden in her mother’s past. Set predominately in England in the present day and during the London Blitz in World War II, Morton seamlessly weaves together past and present, keeping the reader guessing the whole way through the novel.

It is to Morton’s credit that The Secret Keeper never once feels like more effort than it is worth. The writing is sharp, with enough attention to detail to paint a picture in the reader’s mind, without getting carried away and thinking that the reader needs to know the contours of every leaf on every mentioned tree. I usually struggle with books which jump back and forth between different time periods, but Morton immerses the reader in the 1940s without self-consciously alluding to the fact that it is the 1940s. The details of the time period come through in the narrative, rather than long passages which explain to the reader how things were back then. Morton trusts the reader to piece it together as they follow her characters.

And it is the characters who drive this story and pull the reader in. Laurel never slips into a caricature or a stereotype of what it means to be a famous actress, and I found myself drawn to Laurel because of her quest to discover more about who her mother used to be, and not because of her occupation. It is easy to forget for pages at a time that Laurel is one of England’s most famous actresses, and so it should be. The intrigue in this story is not Laurel’s occupation; it is the mystery which envelops her family.

Even so, there were some things about the novel and the plot which felt a little contrived. There are several twists and turns which keep the reader guessing and, while it was refreshing to find the novel steering away from where I thought Morton was leading towards (an ending I would have found very disappointing after enjoying the rest of the book), I felt like I had to stretch my imagination to be really convinced by the solved mystery. And I did question the actions and motivations of one of the characters. While Morton did explain the reasoning behind the way this particular character acted, the explanation felt more like a convenient solution than a logical explanation. Still, this is a very minor fault is what is an otherwise breathtaking read.

The Secret Keeper is a wonderful read. The contrast between past and present, together with the characterisation and the vivid settings Morton creates in the reader’s mind, bring this book to life. There is no such thing as perfection, but are there some things you keep from those you love, in order to protect them? Or do you reveal everything, in the hope that they can help protect you? This novel cleverly explores the past and complicated relationships which shape and mould someone’s future self, and explores how much of your past self you should leave behind, and how much you should take with you into the present.

The Secret Keeper is published by Mantle.

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