Writer’s Review: The Secret Keeper

I’ve read a lot of books. Only since I started writing have I become particularly critical of what I read. There have been very few books that I have ever refused to finish reading. However, since I started writing novels of my own – reading all the advice out there for first-time writers and how they should learn the rules before they consider breaking them, I have begun to wonder; should we accept the breaking of these rules just because a writer has been published previously?

So I’ve decided to share some of my thoughts on the books that I read. Not as a reader, but as a writer. Inevitably these will likely be more critical than they are complimentary – call it jealousy, label it my own insecurities, but for whatever reason, take these thoughts as my own and how I felt when reading this novel, as someone who writes and who struggles to write.

The Secret Keeper
Kate Morton

secret-keeper-pb-7b-advertorial1961: On a sweltering summer’s day, while her family picnics by the stream on their Suffolk farm, sixteen-year-old Laurel hides out in her childhood tree house dreaming of a boy called Billy, a move to London, and the bright future she can’t wait to seize. But before the idyllic afternoon is over, Laurel will have witnessed a shocking crime that changes everything.

2011: Now a much-loved actress, Laurel finds herself overwhelmed by shades of the past. Haunted by memories, and the mystery of what she saw that day, she returns to her family home and begins to piece together a secret history. A tale of three strangers from vastly different worlds–Dorothy, Vivien and Jimmy–who are brought together by chance in wartime London and whose lives become fiercely and fatally entwined…

I chose to read this book because I had previously read The House at Riverton and remembered enjoying it. I also chose it because I wanted to see how other authors – published authors – have tackled the issue of telling a story from more than one viewpoint. In this novel, when I flicked through it, there were four parts. Once entitled ‘Laurel’, a second ‘Dorothy’, a third called ‘Vivien’ and the final part back to ‘Dorothy’. I mistakenly believed these to represent the point of view that the story was told.

In the case of Laurel, in 2011, this is the case. The entirety of the story told in contemporary times is from Laurel’s point of view, in third person. There is no shift in this. Even when introduced to other characters, Laurel’s view is the one that is narrating.

But, when we slip back into the past it doesn’t become as simple. Initially, the story is narrated through the eyes of Dorothy. Just as I was becoming comfortable with this the viewpoint shifts. Suddenly we hear the story from Jimmy, Dorothy’s lover, and how he sees the world. By the time we get to part three – Vivien – the story from 1941 is being narrated via Dorothy, Jimmy and Vivien.

I can understand why this would make the story easier to tell. It encourages the reader to become sympathetic to the characters, to understand their motives, to want to invest in their lives. However, there was one page and a half that riled me – as a writer – and, as a result, almost did cause me to shut the book in frustration . Fortunately Morton has a beguiling style, and her choice to narrate the 1941 story through the eyes of the three most important figures does work. This is what drove me on to complete the reading.

But, it is between pages 503 and 505 that I momentarily stopped believing in Morton’s story. This is where the writing let me down. As a reader, I would have previously skipped over this section and forgotten about it. As a writer, the scene did not sit right with me and, I regret to admit, it ruined the novel for me.

You see, just before this section, a letter is dropped. This letter is vital to the plot, but now it is not in the possession of any of Morton’s characters. So, she slips. For just under two pages there is an omniscient viewpoint. An unseen narrator who fills in the blanks of how this letter found it’s way from between some floorboards to the intended recipient.

Suddenly, “a kindly officer named Sue” is introduced who discovers this letter and delivers this letter like the good Samaritan she is. Or rather, the conveniently placed plot device that she is. Because, for those couple of pages, that is all I could see. Morton’s writing is executed with beautiful prose, and it is so easy to read you willingly fall in with the characters that she creates. Even more so, she delivers a magnificent climax to the novel that I only suspected a chapter or two before the big reveal.

Still, those two pages let it down. I think that perhaps even Kate Morton feels this, as reading a section on her website she says:

“…there were periods during its composition when I felt utterly confuddled and couldn’t make the puzzle pieces fit together.”

It’s likely, however, that she isn’t talking specifically about how to get that pesky lost letter from Dorothy to Vivien without implicating her main character in some vindictive behaviour. There are many threads to this book that would no doubt have been complicated to write and make sense of. The plot demands it. And there was a slight discordance with the fact that Morton allows you as the reader to understand Dorothy’s story, whereas Laurel cannot.

As a result, I often lost track of what Laurel really knew and thought it was quite convenient when she surmised the real reasons behind the evidence of her mother’s past that she has discovered. Again, if I wasn’t a writer, I might never have noticed how cleverly this was set up by Morton to make you more susceptible to believing that which Laurel concluded, with very little knowledge. As the reader, the one who knows what ‘really’ happened, you simply accept it because you know Laurel is right. I can only be respectfully admiring of Morton for setting this up so beautifully.

Overall, though, this is a wonderful book. The switching viewpoints can sometimes be a distraction, but without them the full story couldn’t be told. Morton’s actual writing is consistent throughout, and for that I’m glad. Despite not having particularly distinctive character voices (see my post earlier) her own voice shines through and interlaces all of the chapters together to form a cohesive whole.

It was an enjoyable read. Excepting those two pages, which as a writer made me want to scream inside. So often I’ve heard the advice to remain consistent to viewpoint, and I struggle with this so much in my own writing. To see an author get away with it in published material, and for it to be such a small but vital aspect of the novel as a whole, it frustrates me. I wish she had found some other way of explaining away this mysterious posted letter…because if she had, I think – as a writer – I would have loved this book.

~~~

What do you think? As an established writer should Morton be forgiven for breaking the rules? 

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4 responses to “Writer’s Review: The Secret Keeper

  1. Pingback: Writer’s Review: Room | The struggle to be a writer that writes

  2. Pingback: Aim Low; Achieve High | The struggle to be a writer that writes

  3. Having not read the book, I’m answering as a complete outsider, but I think breaking the rules depends on the reasons behind it. Is there some other insight given by swapping into that omniscient view or is it something that could just have easily been relayed by character dialogue at a later moment? Does “Good Samaritan Sue” hand deliver the letter to the intended recipient or does she simply put it in the mailbox? Either way, I can’t understand a reason to break narration to omniscient for a small detail unless it’s vital for the reader to understand the path the letter took.

    It’s easy to drop into an omniscient voice and produce the Deus Ex Machina to provide the answers, but is it right for the story? From my point of view, it probably wasn’t. If Samaritan Sue has the opportunity to dialogue with a point of view character she can provide the simple explanation of how she found it. If it’s just deposited into a mailbox well, then the POV can connect the dots that someone found it did their good deed for the day.

    Is there more to in than that?

    • To be honest, I’m not sure how else Morton would have been able to approach the deliverance of the letter. I imagine there could have been opportunity written in to explain it, but it would likely have involved her characters knowing more than they should, providing another flaw in the writing.

      The letter needed to be delivered for the plot to work out the way it did. But, in order to ensure her characters remained sympathetic there was no choice to have one of them deliver/post it. Therefore there needed to be some outside influence that forced the situation.

      I think it struck me as a weak point of the entire novel – Morton worked really hard to produce the climax that she did, but this one detail stuck out for me and marred what would otherwise have been an excellent novel.

      With more thought, and the ingenious threads of the plot she has already presented, I suppose she could have explained away the letter arriving at its final destination. Even something as simple as Dorothy realising that she has left the letter in a cafe, and then another character surmising that someone must have posted it – the good Samaritan still playing her part, but not deferred to in the viewpoint.

      Thanks for reading, and for commenting. I think you’re right – for the rules to be broken there has to be a rationale that justifies it. In this case, however, I don’t necessarily believe that was the case.

      Take Care, Cat

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