Like all of Kate Morton’s books, The Secret Keeper, a novel that is set in three different periods and follows the lives of three very different women, all linked by a terrible secret, is a rare treasure. This is because it’s a story like those you used to read of old, when you were a child and believed that dreams could be fully inhabited, and that your wardrobe really could lead to other worlds, and boarding schools were invented simply to enjoy high teas with friends. This is what I think of as a rainy day novel, the type transports you out of your lounge room, off your cushion, and into another time and place; immerses you in the lives of others making you care, dislike or even love them deeply. So much so, that when the tale ends, you feel as if a little part of you has dimmed.
So it is with Morton’s fourth book and, in my mind, one of her best. The Secret Keeper, as the blurb on the back teases, starts in a sleepy, gentle 1961, when young Laurel, a teenager on the brink of womanhood, witnesses her mother, Dorothy, plunging a knife into a strange man’s chest, killing him instantly.
Propelled away from the violence and into 2011, we meet Laurel once again, this time as an accomplished actor in her sixties at the twilight of a brilliant career. Dorothy is about to turn ninety and all the children are summoned home to be beside her, knowing her days are finite and precious. One of five siblings, Laurel is the eldest and, being back with her mother conjures up memories of her past and that inexplicable day when her dreamy, imaginative mother committed a terrible crime – a crime for which she was never held accountable and which Laurel has always kept secret.
As her mother’s health fades, Laurel determines to uncover the secret that she has kept, to find out who the murdered man was to her mother and what prompted her parent to act in such a way. Discovering a photo she’s never seen before, an inscription in a book that bears the name Vivian, Laurel is given her first clues and so, with the help of her brother, Gerard, she sets out to solve the mystery that’s shrouded her entire life.
This is a sublime novel that moves between 1941 and the London Blitz, to 1961 and then forward to contemporary times, shifting gently, like a soft pressure on the back, as if in a slow dance. It also segues from England to Australia and, in doing so, captures the lives and mores of different women in very different eras. Through the eyes of ambitious, romantic and fanciful Dorothy, who believes herself born to be exceptional, we come to war-torn London, where women worked in service and for their country. Physically attractive, Dorothy turns her back on her family in order to tread the path she believes the fates have carved just for her. Meeting Jimmy, a photographer with an eye for beauty and a loyal heart, she finds love, but it’s when she becomes the companion of an elderly rich woman and meets her neighbour, the enigmatic and beautiful Vivian, married to a famous author, that more than fate intervenes with tragic consequences.
Then, there’s Vivian herself, a child of the antipodes who, through terrible circumstances finds herself in England and at the whim of cruel and dangerous forces, which work to shape and change her.
From different classes and with very different outlooks on life, Laurel cannot fathom what brought her mother into Vivian’s sphere or vice-a-versa, but as she slowly uncovers letters, journals and more pictures, and begins to make the connections, Laurel begins to understand that she’s not the only one keeping secrets…
Morton has very much made secrets, letters, memories and diaries, the never mind photographs and stories within stories part of her very female (but not so it excludes male readers, many of whom I know devour her books too) ouevre. In her gifted hands and wonderful imagination, she uses these tropes deftly and smoothly, allowing different voices to share in the story in which readers inevitably become lost.
There is something lilting and magical about Morton’s prose, her turn of phrase; her exquisite way of rendering the ordinary extraordinary. One example is when Dorothy (Dolly) is working for her peevish lady: ‘“Perish the thought,” Dolly said, posting the boiled sweet through her mistress’ pursed lips.’
The simple word “posting” (think what else could have been used) is so perfect and transforms what Dolly is doing, making the action something you don’t just read about, but witness. That’s the beauty of Morton’s writing – it appears effortless, flows, but words like that reveal the thought and choice that goes into every sentence. A friend of mine (a fellow writer) once wrote that she had word-envy when reading a particular author. I understand that emotion when reading Morton.
What I particularly liked in this book as well is that Morton is not above giving the critics a bit of a serve. At one point in the novel, she has Laurel reflecting on her prefect childhood:
“The sort of home life that was written about by sentimental novelists in the type of books branded nostalgic by critics. (Until that whole business with the knife. That’s more like it the critics would have puffed.).”
Managing to be both self-aware and slightly self-deprecating at the same time she also silences those who might suggest (as some reviewers have) that Morton has become too formulaic, almost saying, what’s wrong with that? Or I choose to write this way. I cheered when I read that and thought what’s wrong with capturing a corner of the market like Morton has and relishing “nostalgia” and “family drama”, celebrating it and making that niche your own? For this is what Morton has certainly done. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – not when novels like this are produced.
The Secret Keeper is best described as a delicious book. It’s something you’ll want to savour, to reflect upon, to appreciate for the work of literary art that it is before you return for a second and third serve.