The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton – the comfort of popular fiction and the lure of narcissism

The cover blurb of The Secret Keeper states:

1961: 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 fatefully entwined.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton is an engaging story that’s easy to read. There were no surprises for me at the end. The clues to the story’s “twists” were laid carefully for any reader who knew this wasn’t going to end in disappointment. For much of the story the reader is led to expect the novel’s message will be about forgiveness and atonement, about “second chances”, spurred on by a mystery: one of the central characters, the present-day actress Laurel, seeks to know explain her mother Dorothy’s seemingly heinous behaviour when she was a teenager. But it doesn’t fully address the question of evil, unless evil can be equated with the consequences of magical thinking in childhood when the child doesn’t mature successfully.

That’s what interests me about the book, its psychological take on its characters.

In between reading, I also listened to two discussions on Radio National’s Counterpoint program. A quick aside: Counterpoint’s new presenter, Amanda Vanstone, the ex-Howard government Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, consistently used the universal “man” in her discussion, swapping to “humanity” only when she referred to an actual woman. To me, this suggests the depth of what women face with internalised gender bias: we’re not even aware it exists, let alone its ramifications, or possible impact on what, as girls and women, we might expect of ourselves; how we can mature to find security, safety, a sense of belonging and self-esteem without falling back on stereotypical notions of “a woman’s place”, or what makes a “good woman”. These themes are also important to The Secret Keeper.

The first discussion I listened to was with writer R Jay Magill Junior on sincerity. This touched on the question of what we like and admire about people – especially politicians – and how this may differ from their skills in leadership or ability to get a job done. It acknowledged the gap between what we want to think about ourselves and our heroes – that we’re essentially good people – and the political and social realities. Essentially, it presented the old dilemma: how can we have leaders who can make tough decisions when the solutions to problems aren’t always in accord with notions of decency, freedom, altruism and fairness; how can such leaders remain sympathetic in the eyes of an electorate? The result is spin, a seemingly necessary duplicity which caters to both expectations of the audience, the voters.

This might seem a long way from The Secret Keeper and the actions of three strangers in war-torn London, but it’s not: central to the novel is the question of narcissism – or pathological self-absorption – and how it arises as a defence mechanism as a result of trauma; and empathy, the ability to place oneself in another’s shoes and anticipate or intuit how they might feel in any given situation.

Such issues are also touched on in the second discussion I listened to, one with psychiatrist Dr George Henry on what makes a good person. Vanstone introduces the discussion by saying how quiet women are often judged as “good”, while “noisy” women – like her, she says – are judged to be “difficult”: “A forcefully spoken man is regarded as strong and a forcefully spoken woman is regarded as aggressive.” But what about the “quiet ones”? she asks. Are they always “good people”?

This dualism is depicted in The Secret Keeper. Servant girl Dorothy is vivacious, outgoing, always good for a laugh and a good time; she is also self-serving, duplicitous and self-deluded. Socialite Vivien is quiet, good-natured, and passive to the point of being a victim. Both are dreamers; both have suffered trauma and loss. The question the novel appears to pose is this: can Dorothy, a perpetrator, be redeemed and rewarded with happiness, family, sufficient wealth and peace of mind, despite her crimes? Crucially, can she, as she approaches the end of her life, be forgiven by her daughter?

It’s an interesting question, and one the novel never answers. Instead, by the wonderful sleight-of-hand that is fiction, we find ourselves in an alternative narrative, one of “Virtue, Patience and Courage Rewarded”. Essentially, we’re snatched away from considering a tough question about what humans are capable of, and what justice, forgiveness, atonement and redemption may really involve, and we’re given spin. Without further thought, the result for the reader could be the same, with our prejudices reinforced. People like “us” are okay; people like “them”, we don’t have to worry about: the allure and comfort of popular fiction.

Recently on Twitter was a discussion which spilled over from a convention on genre fiction held in Sydney; it was about whether the term “literary” is a separate genre. One of the key attributes of literary fiction, suggested one author, is a “realism” which is often equated with pessimism. The key to popular fiction, I heard some time ago, is “aspiration”: the world not as it is, but what we might hope it to be; not how others are, but how we would like them to be; not how we ourselves are, but what we’d like to believe ourselves to be.

There is a conundrum here that The Secret Keeper identifies. Aspirational thinking is symptomatic of the very narcissism and lack of empathy which results in tragic consequences in the novel. Could our craving for popular fiction be symptomatic of a similar kind of pathology? A denial about ourselves and our shortcomings, a recreation of the world as we would have it, not as it is?

Perhaps. But even popular fiction books like The Secret Keeper can be self-referential enough to shed light on this topic. It’s not all spin.

In The Secret Keeper Morton identifies the need for escape into fantasy as a need stemming from trauma and loss. It’s a self-protective mechanism, she shows, and it takes inner strength, courage and hope to break free from. In order to mature into a healthy, empathic adult, one needs conditions for such inner strength to thrive: friendship and love, safe shelter and nourishment, worthwhile employment, humour and imagination, and someone to believe in us, other- as well as self-esteem. When such needs aren’t met – or aren’t perceived as being met by the narcissistic individual – it’s hard to be virtuous.

It’s a gentle take on humanity and a page-turning read.

~

Thanks to Allen & Unwin for sending a copy. (What a pleasure to read a beautiful, hard-bound book with a ribbon bookmark.)

This review counts as 11/12 for my Aussie Author Challenge 2012 and as part of my ongoing contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge. The Secret Keeper has been reviewed for the challenge by Jon Page at Bite the Book and Shelleyrae at Book’d Out.

The Secret Keeper
Allen & Unwin 2012
ISBN: 9781742374376

Gambling, Greed and Gullibility: Fall Girl by Toni Jordan

In March this year, the National Year of Reading’s theme was “laugh”. Two Australian authors whose names kept cropping up in my Twitter feed were Paddy O’Reilly and Toni Jordan. Initially I thought I wouldn’t get to read any books by Jordan until next year – my recent releases “to be read” pile is so high it’s tottering. But sometimes I buck my own system.

On the weekend, I went down to the library to find some “light reading” to give myself a break – and found Fall Girl, published back in 2010. What a gem!

Fall Girl is a mixture of romantic comedy, mystery, chick lit and fable, with an underlying Cinderella-cum-Robin Hood motif. The Cinders-Robin character is “Ella” – although that’s only one of the aliases she uses. Ella is an honourable young woman, in her own way, almost an innocent abroad, despite her years’ experience as a “grifter”. She, along with her circus-retinue-like family, have put the “artist” into “con artist”, as Jordan writes, and made a vocation out of duping people.

Within the parameters of her profession, Ella is as dedicated as any careerist, and it is her dedication to her work – rather than its criminality – which provides one of the chief obstacles to her growing attraction to her “mark”, millionaire philanthropist Daniel Metcalf. But Metcalf, too, is not what he seems. The ensuing romp involves Ella posing as a field biologist and conducting a spurious hunt for the fabled Tasmanian Tiger in the wilds of Wilson’s Promontory, and it’s as madcap and funny as anything I’ve read in ages.

In her Acknowledgements, Jordan writes that Fall Girl was inspired by the work of the late Stephen Jay Gould, evolutionary biologist. The research Ella regurgitates while playing her part makes me think this novel could make an excellent text for high school students; but the science is never laboured and the book certainly doesn’t take this, or any other theme, too seriously. For me, Fall Girl had enough wit, charm and whimsy that made it a quick, delightful read. While the characterisations border on caricature and the plot is farcical, the dialogue is witty and laugh-out-loud in places. Underlying the plot is a cleverly serious point about gambling, greed and gullibility, but the satire is gentle, not cutting; the people depicted as foolish, rather than malicious.

Jordan’s first novel was Addition and her latest, Nine Days, was published this year. Fall Girl certainly won’t be the only novel of Jordan’s that I’ll read.

ISNB-13: 9781921656651
Text Publishing, 2010
Borrowed from Avalon Community Library

This review counts as Book 7 of my Aussie Author Challenge 2012, and part of my ongoing participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Christine Stinson, It Takes a Village – An Australian childhood

Australian author Christine Stinson’s first novel was the marvellously witty and engaging, Getting Even with Fran. That story celebrates the complexity of life-long friendships, centering around a thirty-year Catholic girl’s school reunion. After such a debut, Stinson’s second novel, It Takes a Village, comes as a surprise.

Told from the point of view of a young orphaned girl being brought up by her shell-shocked grandfather, It Takes a Village doesn’t have the biting humour of Getting Even with Fran. Rather, it weaves a gentle spell around the lives of the various characters who populate a poor suburb in Sydney in the 1950s and early 60s.

In this fictional memoir, Stinson deftly creates a portrait of an Australian way of life long gone. With strict morals and, at times, narrow-minded attitudes, this life also created a sense of  compassion and community that contemporary suburban life rarely offers. Having read the story in manuscript, as well as the finished novel, I kept hearing echoes of the sayings and expressions of people from my own Australian childhood, those ancient great-aunts and their companions who have long since passed away.

Although It Takes a Village touches on some serious social questions, including the aftermath of the deployment of United States army personnel in war-time Sydney, it doesn’t attempt to provide serious social commentary. Instead it achieves a moving as well as feel-good atmosphere which reminded me of the novels of Maeve Binchey.

Given that the second novel was such a contrast to the first, I’ve been fascinated to watch Stinson approach the writing of her third, yet to be published, novel Epiphany (working title). Set in the Blue Mountains, Epiphany revisits the “group of friends” theme, and again conveys the complexity of relationships among contemporary Australian women, this time with the added international flavour of having one of the main characters a leading conductor. The story builds on a deeply moving emotional dilemma which touches many Australian women in their late thirties-early forties juggling motherhood and career, and promises to be ranked among the best contemporary mainstream Australian women’s fiction when it appears.

(This review appeared in Amazon in July 2011 and has been revised)

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