My thanks to Anne at Random Things Tours for the inviting me to join the tour and to Hutchinson Books for my review copy.
About the Book
TWO FEMALE SPIES. A BANNED MASTERPIECE. A BOOK THAT CHANGED HISTORY
1956 – A celebrated Russian author is writing a book, Doctor Zhivago, which could spark dissent in the Soviet Union. The Soviets, afraid of its subversive power, ban it. But in the rest of the world it’s fast becoming a sensation. In Washington DC, the CIA is planning to use the book to tip the Cold War in its favour.
Their agents are not the usual spies, however. Two typists – the charming, experienced Sally and the talented novice Irina – are charged with the mission of a lifetime: to smuggle Doctor Zhivago back into Russia by any means necessary.
It will not be easy. There are people prepared to die for this book – and agents willing to kill for it. But they cannot fail – as this book has the power to change history.
Sold in twenty-five countries and poised to become a global literary sensation, Lara Prescott’s dazzling first novel is a sweeping page turner and the most hotly anticipated debut of the year.
Format: Hardcover (480pp.) Publisher: Hutchinson
Publication date: 5th September 2019 Genre: Historical Fiction
Find The Secrets We Kept on Goodreads
Alternating between events either side of the Iron Curtain over a number of decades and incorporating multiple points of view, the structure of the book does require some concentration on the part of the reader. However, the effort will be amply rewarded.
There are some clever touches. I especially liked the chapters told from the collective point of view of ‘The Typists’, the members of the CIA typing pool. Equally as intelligent (and in many cases, more intelligent) than the male employees of the organisation, their gender sees them confined to administrative roles. Also how the changing roles of key characters is cleverly reflected in the chapter headings.
The use of impersonal descriptors such as ‘The Muse’, ‘The Applicant’ or ‘The Emissary’ picks up on one of the themes explored in the book, that of identity. As one character observes, “I could become just about anyone”.
The act of writing and the power of literature to reflect, challenge and communicate ideas is a central focus of the book. In writing Doctor Zhivago – ‘the great novel you’ve dreamed of’ – and pursuing its publication, Boris Pasternak sacrifices everything: his freedom, his reputation and ultimately his health. It also creates collateral damage, not least to Olga, his lover, muse and the inspiration for Lara, the novel’s heroine.
In Sally, Olga and Irina, the author paints portraits of three strong, resilient and resourceful women. Olga’s experiences are particularly powerfully described. Arguably all the women prove themselves stronger than any of the men who claim to love them. This makes the final chapters revealing the fates of the women surely as chilling and moving as anything in Doctor Zhivago.
With its cast of spies, moles, couriers and double agents, the book conjures up the clandestine world of code words, secret rendezvous and undercover surveillance in the best traditions of John le Carré (think The Russia House or The Spy Who Came In From The Cold). There are also some great set pieces such as the scene in which illicit copies of Doctor Zhivago are distributed to be smuggled into the Soviet Union.
Combining touching love stories with the characteristic elements of a spy novel, as well as intelligently exploring themes such as identity and gender equality, The Secrets We Kept is an intensely satisfying read.
In three words: Clever, compelling, emotional
Try something similar: Tightrope by Simon Mawer (read my review here)
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About the Author
Lara Prescott was named after the heroine of Doctor Zhivago and first discovered the true story behind the novel after the CIA declassified 99 documents pertaining to its role in the book’s publication and covert dissemination. She travelled the world – from Moscow and Washington, to London and Paris – in the course of her research, becoming particularly interested in political repression in both the Soviet Union and United States and how, during the Cold War, both countries used literature as a weapon.
Lara earned her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband.