On a summer day in 1961, 16 year old Laurel Nicholson is sitting in her treehouse at her family’s Suffolk cottage when a strange man comes up the driveway. His appearance has a dramatic effect on Laurel’s mother Dorothy, who stabs him to death. The ensuing police investigation finds that Dorothy was acting in self-defence and no further action is taken.
The story jumps forward to 2011, where Dorothy Nicholson lies dying in a nursing home. A chance discovery of an old photograph of her mother and a woman called Vivien prompts Laurel to delve into her mother’s past and question what happened on that day in 1961. It leads her back to London, during the blitz of 1941 and what happened between Dorothy, Vivien and a man named Jimmy.
Told alternately from the point of view of Laurel, Dorothy, Vivien and Jimmy, details of the past are gradually revealed as Laurel discovers them in the present.
Kate Morton is an international bestselling author and her books are characterised as commercial fiction. She’s apparently very successful overseas, particularly in England.
I’ll get to the flaws later but what I did like about this book was the way the major plot twist satisfied the reader. There’s one that I really didn’t spot and it explained something that had been bothering me throughout the story and so when it was explained, I really admired what she’d done. I can’t tell you what it is without spoiling the story. The plot is strong in general, although it does rely just a little too much on co-incidences, and letters. The period detail is also very strong. Life during the blitz is strongly evoked and for the most part the historical details don’t strain too hard. Its a book jam-packed with traditional English tropes – the idyllic country cottage, the damage and fear of the London blitz, the entrenched class system and readers who love that kind of historical novel will love The Secret Keeper. Morton’s prose style is clear and elegant and her attention to small details is lovely.
But where this book completely fails in my opinion, and why I didn’t particularly enjoy it, is in the editing. There’s examples of poor editing at the sentence level – ‘she glanced at her legs, relatively long and slender, both of them‘. Really? Both of her legs were the same shape? I find it staggering that the author let things like this through, as did everyone else who read it before it hit the presses. And another one, when Laurel discovers an old document about her mother and thinks ‘Dorothy Smitham had been real‘, well yes. On a scene level, we get several pages where Laurel describes what you need to do to register for a reader’s pass at the British Library, and lots of detail of her interaction with a librarian at New College, Oxford, presumably to demonstrate her impatience to get to the information she wants. There are also scenes that don’t appear to have much function, other than to demonstrate character traits that we’re already aware of. The central action of the backstory is also drawn out to the point of tedium. It seems that if the author doesn’t edit their work well, no-one else is going to do it for them.
All of this extraneous stuff could have been edited out and the book would have been about 400 pages instead of 600, and none the worse for it. The other duplication is in revealing the events of the past and then revealing them again as Laurel tries to second guess the truth.
I do wonder if repetition and huge, flabby stories are part of the job description for commercial fiction – is there some sort of dictum that states say it once, say it again, and then say it again? I really did appreciate the plot twist at the end and the emotional characterisation was also very good, but I have to conclude that this sort of fiction isn’t really my thing.