Kate Morton is not a novelist that I have read before. However, having been seduced by reviews of her latest, The Secret Keeper, I settled down to enjoy a long and involving story that follows a family mystery backwards and forwards through almost a century of British history. It has a sit up with a shock opening – in 1961 teenager Laurel witnesses a man approach her mother at the gate to their house. She watches as her mother sets down on the ground the baby boy she is carrying, grasping hold of the knife she is about to cut his birthday cake with, and rips it into the chest of the man, killing him. Fifty years later, with her mother now close to death, Oscar-winning actress Laurel is driven by a compulsion to discover the truth behind this act. Why did the man, dismissed by police as a criminal, greet her mother with her name?
The greater part of The Secret Keeper moves between 2011, the year of Laurel’s quest, and 1941, a critical year in the life of her mother, Dorothy. The pages take us back to London during the height of the Blitz when young women such as Dorothy have to make a living in a city that is being ripped apart by night, whole streets and boroughs wiped out by continual bombing. This state of affairs, though, does mean that the rigid class system of the pre-war years is itself taking some blows, allowing Dorothy some freedom to follow her dreams, even as the bombs fall around her. We follow her life in the city, her friends and boyfriend, and meet the people that will dictate the future course of her life, including Vivien who, like Dorothy, has trauma in her life.
In the present day, Laurel, her sisters and brother slowly start to come to terms with the loss of their wonderful and exciting mother, uncovering little clues to the life they wish to hang on to in the secret places of Dorothy’s house. It is clear that for Laurel, and for her brother, their own lives must wait until they can come to terms with what has happened. It would appear to Laurel that her mother is likewise waiting for the peace that this knowledge would bring.
The Secret Keeper gave me a fair amount of angst during the course of the week in which I read it. The writing is beautiful, the characters are elegantly allowed to grow and breathe and the settings (1941 and the Blitz, 1961, 2011 and flashbacks into earlier days) are vividly located. For the first couple of hundred pages I was gripped by it and mesmerised by the atmosphere.
All well and good, but at about halfway through I found the characters increasingly frustrating (and irritating). The exception was Laurel and I would turn the pages longing for a return to the present day and Laurel’s hunt. The issue that had the most dramatic impact on my enjoyment of the novel, though, was that quite early on I had worked out all of the mysteries. From that point on I also found the storyline increasingly frustrating. I was disappointed by the predictability and the slow, slow circle-creeping narrative. Rarely have I urged a book to ‘get on with it!’ quite as much. Beautiful prose it might be but when you have guessed how the story will unfold it does lose its shine. It’s a little thing but I also thought that the ages of Laurel and her sisters were not easy to believe. Bearing in mind that they were all in their 60s and 70s, I found the depiction of sister Daphne as the glamorous TV weather reader eyebrow raising to say the least.
As a result, my appreciation of the novel’s good points – and there are plenty – were unfortunately outweighed by relief at reaching its finish. But it’s worth mentioning that I had to finish it. The Secret Keeper is an addictive read and I can see why so many readers love it even if it failed with me.