2012 REVIEWS: AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS #7

SECRET KEEPER, THE
Author: Kate Morton
Allen & Unwin RRP $35
Review: Monique Mulligan

The Secret KeeperThe Secret Keeper, the fourth novel by Kate Morton is like unwrapping a “pass the parcel” gift; as each layer is removed, the anticipation to find out the “prize” is heightened until you just haveto know what’s inside. Luckily, the wait for the mystery to be solved was well worth it (not always the case with Pass the Parcel, is it?); The Secret Keeper kept me wondering, imagining and reflecting from the moment I turned to the first page.

1961: A boy called Billy, London, a Harold Pinter play called The Birthday Party and a future career as an actress – that’s what’s occupying 16-year-old Laurel’s thoughts one warm summer’s day as she hides out in a tree house. She’s supposed to be joining in with her young brother’s birthday party, and she will, in her time. But first, she’ll dream of a world at her feet, of a stolen kiss … Laurel is snapped from her reverie when she sees a strange man walking up to her house. Moments later she witnesses a shocking crime.

Fifty years later and now a famous actress, Laurel decides it’s time to uncover the truth of what happened that long-ago day. Her mother, Dorothy, is close to death; Laurel knows that many secrets dwell in the recesses of Dorothy’s mind, but will Dorothy reveal them before death takes her? As Laurel pieces things together, both from her mother’s obscure utterances and from a trunk bearing enigmatic items from her mother’s past, she learns that Dorothy’s past is entwined with two other people – Jimmy and Vivien. But how are they connected? What happened to them? And how does it all tie in with what Laurel witnessed as a teenager?

Author Kate Morton has developed a distinct storytelling style in which the narrative emerges from a number of different time periods. It can’t be easy capturing the flavour of each period and yet, she does it so well. The Secret Keeper follows the same pattern; the storyline shifts between the 1930s, 1940s, 1960s and the present with ease, building up a rich picture of family secrets over several generations. The novel has a fairly slow start (I questioned this at first), but once the pieces start to fall into place (about two-thirds through) things move a lot faster (by the end, you wish it wasn’t over).

While secrets are the hook for this compelling story, at its heart The Secret Keeper is about love and the lengths people will go to protect it. Dorothy protects her family from her secret past because she loves them. Laurel protects her siblings from learning that she is digging into her mother’s past – because she loves them and she loves her mother. Other characters, such as Jimmy, are compelled by a similar force – there is more than one secret keeper and in most cases, love (and fear for their loved ones) motivates their silence. The novel also shows how different decisions can change everything, giving rise to the eternal “What if?” question. And then there’s the question, “How well do we know the people in our lives?” What don’t we know? What don’t they tell us?

I really like the way Morton brings her characters alive. She has a knack for drawing out her characters, revealing them bit by bit, so their characters are as much a mystery for much of the book as the mystery itself. For me, Laurel was one of the more under-developed characters – she seemed more of a catalyst for telling the entwined stories of Dorothy, Vivien and Jimmy. Their characters rose out of the grey gloom of wartime London and stood in full colour, inviting the reader to hear what they had to say. The younger Dorothy, in particular, was a strongly-drawn character – at times immature, selfish and increasingly hard to like.

Morton also depicted Blitz-torn London with authenticity, delivering scenes that were intense and real. I could feel myself there, more so than in other places described. I think this was intentional, the downplaying of the other time periods – inThe Secret Keeper the wartime period is like the roots and trunk of an ancient tree, with the other stories branching from this.

A warm, thoroughly engrossing and dynamic read, The Secret Keeper is a book I highly recommend and I’ll be re-reading it (when I get a spare moment). I had some ideas about the twist relatively early (my overall hunch was correct and based on characterisation, but the specifics eluded me to the end). What you get with The Secret Keeper is a whopping great read (it’s big) that is full of skilfully-worked tension, intrigue and heart. I loved it and I think this is a contender for a big screen adaptation.

Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.


SHIFTING FOG, THE
Author: Kate Morton
Allen & Unwin RRP $23.95
Review: Monique Mulligan

The Shifting FogGive me a good Gothic style novel set in an English country manor and overflowing with secrets, mystery, romance … and say goodbye to me for a while as I immerse myself in another time and place. I have a weakness for these stories – when done well, they are compelling, even haunting. The Shifting Fog, Kate Morton’s first novel, first attracted me with its Edwardian setting and promise of a suspenseful read; this is my second reading of the novel (I was sent it ahead of her latest release The Secret Keeper).

Riverton House is the keeper of many secrets. In 1924, on the eve of a glittering society party, a young poet takes his life at the lake of the country house, with sisters Hannah and Emmeline Hartford the only witnesses. They never speak to each other again. Seventy-five years on, the tragic event is the subject of a film and the film-maker is seeking the help of a former Riverton employee to ensure its accuracy.

Grace Bradley, now 98, was a former housemaid at Riverton (later lady’s maid to Hannah). Now ensconced in a nursing home, she is at first reluctant to get involved with the film, but is talked into it by the enthusiastic young director. As she recalls her days at Riverton, long-buried memories are awakened, unsettling her as a shocking secret threatens to emerge. Much of the story is told in flashback as she recounts her memories leading up to the fateful night by the lake, sharing what she knew about the lives of the Hartford family. These flashbacks are neatly interwoven with the present as Grace grapples with memories that threaten to shadow worries about her widowed grandson and her reserved daughter.

Of course, the truth behind the poet’s death is far different to the official version and Morton does a good job building suspense and bringing the story to its conclusion. As far as the plot goes, the premise is attractive (what role did the sisters really play in the poet’s death) and the flashbacks work well. I particularly enjoyed the insight into 1920’s high society, with all its expectations (especially on women), privileges and politics, as well as the brief look at the impact of World War 1. I did find some of the “loose ends” a bit too neatly tied up though.

Character-wise, I found Grace the most interesting – the class divide was well-portrayed through her. It was intriguing to read that after leaving service she became an archaeologist – that would have been an unusual and difficult path for her to take given the times. In service she is reserved and biddable; her later career choice hints that there is much more to her nature than first appears. She may have known the sisters well (well enough for the elder sister Hannah to confide in her), but they would barely have known her at all. It would have been good for this to have been shown more rather than just told. Both Hannah and Emmeline’s development shows a marked change from the way they are first introduced. Hannah, feisty and outspoken, becomes a reserved woman stifled by the confines of society; Emmeline, eager to please, bursts out of her sister’s shadow to become a spoilt, attention-seeking young woman shaped by a lingering jealousy of her sister. Of the two, Hannah was more likeable.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and Morton’s sense of story has since compelled me to read all of her books (which just get better). The Shifting Fog will appeal to lovers of historical fiction and Gothic mystery – but don’t stop with this one. Read all of Morton’s books and you’ll see how talented she really is.

Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.


STELLA MAKES GOOD
Author: Lisa Heidke
Allen & Unwin RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

Stella Makes GoodWHAT I like about author Lisa Heidke’s books are her real, believable characters. They’re not twenty-somethings with little life experience and youthful ideals; they’re in their thirties and early forties with the rose-coloured glasses starting to crack and fall. Is this how they pictured life when they were in their twenties? Is this how it will be…forever?

Stella Makes Good is no exception. Heidke’s characters are dealing with rocky relationships, divorce, teenagers, young children, unemployment, depression, boredom and disillusionment. Just like many of us.

Stella Sparks is on good terms with her ex-husband, Terry, even though he left her for another woman. Her friends, Carly and Jesse, envy her togetherness. Why can’t they feel the same way? While Stella’s life takes an upward turn when she meets Mike, a father from school, Carly and Jess find that happiness is far more elusive.

I had to smile when Heidke described Stella’s teenage children – “Ben had arrived back from Will’s minutes before but was already on the PS3 shouting, and Hannah was doing the Farmville thing on Facebook”. These grunting teens could have been mine. And her mother-in-law was a cracker.

Written from multiple viewpoints with a healthy dose of humour and keen awareness, Stella Makes Good is a highly enjoyable blend of real life and romance.

Available from good bookstores or Allen & Unwin.   This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin Australia.

This review also appeared in the Weekend/Kwinana Courier.