The Secret Keeper
Kate Morton
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Buy *The Secret Keeper* by Kate Mortononline

The Secret Keeper
Kate Morton
Atria Books
496 pages
October 2012
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Moving from contemporary England to war-time London and to Northern Australia in the 1920s, Morton’s absorbing journey highlights how the past sends ripples along time, and how the human struggle can transcend betrayal. In a novel that artfully keeps its secrets, the author hooks us with intrigue, grabs us by the collar, and ensures that we see the vibrant glimmers of life in the 1950s from the perspective of Oscar-winning actress Laurel Nicolson.

Laurel has just returned to Greenache, the family farmhouse in Suffolk, to attend to her ailing mother, Dorothy. For much of Lauren’s life, Greenache has been the seat of all of her nightmares, which only stopped after her sisters were born. Still reeling from Dorothy’s warnings, Laurel wonders at her mother’s decades-old grief for her family who were lost to a bomb in the Blitz. There are also vague memories of being a very different child when she ached to go to London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, where a new generation of people were all listening at the very same moment.

Laurel hears the name before she recognizes that he is connected in some way to that awful day in 1961. The last thing Laurel sees before her vision is filled with tiny flickering stars is the sunlight that catches the metal blade, the knife plunging deep into the man’s chest. What happened to make Dorothy seize her second chance so firmly and turn her into the kind of person who could kill a man who threatened to bring her past back home to haunt her? On the one hand, she was Dolly Smitham, a naïve girl from Coventry who thought marrying her sweetheart and living in a farmhouse was the answer to her life’s desires; on the other, she was friend to the glamorous, wealthy Vivien Jenkins, and heir and companion to formidable Lady Gwendolyn Caldecott.

Morton parcels out clues in small doses, placing together a clear picture of Laurel and Dorothy’s history--particularly Dolly, whom Morton portrays as a grown woman who didn’t need to invent elaborate fantasy futures for herself because she knew exactly the tremendous adventures that lay ahead. Meanwhile, Laurel’s investigative passions are stirred when she discovers a gift from Vivien: a photograph, a black-and-white shot of the two women with their arms linked.

Like Morton’s previous novels, the challenge for the reader is the constant switching of perspective from past to present and in between. So much of Dorothy’s life is made up of “black spots” as her story unfolds back and forth between 2011 1938, and 1940, and between London and Coventry. Telling her story with great passion, Morton peels back the layers to reveal Dorothy’s truth a little at a time. It is like a journey through the horrors of the Blitz that in turn becomes yet another central theme of the book.

Bombs rain down on London, and the plucky residents are forced to make do, spending their nights huddled together in leaky shelters, craving oranges, cursing Hitler while also longing for an end to the devastation. In the midst of it all, Dolly’s path crosses those of Vivien and Henry Jenkins. Vivian becomes the friend she would have, and Henry the man who will become her nemesis. Jimmy, the war photographer and Dorothy's handsome prince, comes to symbolize the principled core of the story. Perhaps Jimmy is the only man in the world that Dolly will ever truly love.

As Morton cleverly builds to a “gotcha” denouement, Laurel is emotionally trapped and obsessed that Vivian and Dolly were indeed “two-of-a-kind.” The clue is in the photograph that becomes a talisman of sorts, leading Laurel to discover the glory and horror of war, a twisted topography of past, present and a future that is burdened by long-simmering secrets.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2012

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