Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for A Book of Secrets by Kate Morrison to mark its publication in paperback. My thanks to Anne at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the tour and to Jacaranda Books for my digital review copy (although I’m tempted to buy myself a physical copy just for that gorgeous cover.)
About the Book
Susan Charlewood is taken from Ghana (then known as Guinea) as a baby. Brought to England, she grows up as maidservant in a wealthy Catholic household. Living under a Protestant Queen in late 16th Century England, the family risk imprisonment or death unless they keep their faith hidden.
When her mistress dies Susan is married off to a London printer who is deeply involved in the Catholic resistance. She finds herself embroiled in political and religious intrigue, all while trying to find her lost brother and discover the truth about her origins.
In A Book of Secrets Kate Morrison explores the perils of voicing dissent in a state that demands outward conformity, at a time when England is taking its first steps into the long shadow of transatlantic slavery and old certainties about the shape of the universe itself are crumbling.
Format: Paperback (248) pages Publisher: Jacaranda Books
Publication date: 25th March 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction
Find A Book of Secrets on Goodreads
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The book explores in numerous ways issues of race and identity. Looking back on her life, Susan observes, ‘Since I was born, other people have given me names and told me who and what I am . A stranger, a Blackamoor, a little labour-in-vain, a good wife, a whore.’ It starts when she and her mother are captured by Portuguese slavers and brought to England where she is given a new name and a new religion. Indeed, for a long time Susan has no idea of her own or her mother’s birth-name.
When Susan falls pregnant with John Charlewood’s child, I’m sure I’m not the only reader to make a connection with recent events when Susan becomes dismayed at ‘folk speculating on what the child would look like, as if we were trying out some new recipe for syllabub rather than making a living person.’
The mystery of Susan’s cultural identity is exemplified by two treasured items given to her by her mother, the meaning of which she does not understand. As she observes, ‘Every message that came to me from my birth country was incomprehensible to me – a funeral service for a stranger sung in a foreign tongue‘. It’s no wonder then that Susan finds herself drawn to the mysterious Domingo who shares her African heritage.
The objects bequeathed by her mother are just another cipher to be unravelled and there are certainly plenty of those in the book. Having recently read The Rose Code by Kate Quinn, I was struck by the parallels between the women codebreakers of Bletchley Park during World War 2 and Susan’s fervent efforts to secretly decode the illicit messages received by her husband which she fears may threaten the safety of them all. Soon Susan finds herself trapped in a dilemma from which there appears no escape or right path, every choice seemingly involving a betrayal of someone she cares for or feels a loyalty toward.
No historical novel set in the Elizabethan era would be complete without spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham turning up at some point and A Book of Secrets does not disappoint in this respect. (For fans of Rory Clements’ John Shakespeare series, there’s even a – thankfully brief – appearance by his arch-enemy, Richard Topcliffe, the Queen’s torture-master.)
In the final part of the book, the author cleverly brings things full circle with Susan able to confidently state, ‘I am sure of myself and my place in the world’. As she reflects, ‘When I left I was a girl; a lover of stories, unworldly and green… I have done things my young self could never have imagined. I am a story myself’. And what a story she is! Plus, who can fail to fall in love with a character who is a frequent visitor to the booksellers of Paternoster Row and observes, ‘This was the London I wanted to live in, one where the walls and streets and the roofs were all built out of books and the roads paved with paper.’
The publishers describe A Book of Secrets as giving ‘a striking, compelling new perspective on the era, allowing one of the thousands of lost Elizabethan voices to speak out loud.’ Indeed, in her Author’s Note, Kate Morrison explains that one of her motivations for writing the novel was to challenge those who seek to perpetuate the myth of a ‘fantasy all-white English past’ when in fact there is plenty of historical evidence that many Africans lived and worked in Tudor England, married English people, and owned property. In creating the wonderful character of Susan Charlewood and telling her story so beautifully, I believe the author has certainly succeeded in this objective.
A Book of Secrets is a thrilling story of secrets and intrigue but also a revealing portrait of 16th century England that certainly made me reconsider some of my preconceptions about Elizabethan London and the people who inhabited it.
In three words: Intriguing, atmospheric, insightful
Try something similar: The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn
About the Author
Kate Morrison is a British debut novelist. She studied English Literature at New Hall College, Cambridge and has worked as a journalist and a press officer. Morrison was mentored by Ros Barber, the award-winning author of The Marlowe Papers and Devotion. She was a visiting scholar with the Book, Text, and Place 1500-1700 Research Centre at Bath Spa University.
Her short story “Sam Brown” won second prize in the 2011 Asham Award and is in the Asham Award Anthology, Something was There. A Book of Secrets was longlisted for the Mslexia Unpublished Novel Award in 2015.
Kate Morrison currently lives in Bristol with her family.