REVIEW: The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

In brief: At the height of the Cold War, America decides the best way to get through to the Russian people is through illicit copies of Doctor Zhivago.

The good: Very interesting view from inside The Agency.

The not-so-good: Story tapered off somewhat after ‘the drop’.

Why I chose it: Sounded like a novel plot – thanks to Penguin for the copy.

Year: 2019

Pages: 459

Publisher: Hutchinson (Penguin)

Setting: Russia, America and selected places around the world

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

The Secrets We Kept is an interesting mixture of historical fiction, women’s rights (or lack of) and real-life Cold War spy drama. It’s the kind of story that sucks you in from the start, begging to be read.

What’s interesting about The Secrets We Kept is the way the story is told. There are the views from the East (Russia, told through the eyes of Olga, Boris Pasternak’s lover) and those of the West which come from the Agency, aka the CIA. The majority of the characters come from the West, and multiple chapters are devoted to the main characters, namely Irina and Sally. The third ‘character’ is the collective pool of typists at the Agency who speak as one (similar to the technique used in Whisper Network). I can’t say I love this way of telling a story, blending many voices into one omnipotent tone, but it’s not overly frequent and does give the reader an idea of the overall thoughts and ideals of that section. The overall premise of the story is relatively simple. Boris Pasternak is writing Doctor Zhivago, which goes against the collective ideas of Communist Russia. Authorities are not keen for him to finish it, let alone release it. But between Boris and his lover Olga, they manage to smuggle it out of the country and into Italy. The CIA is keen to try to infiltrate Russia any way possible and they believe that sharing literature is the way to get the Cold War in their favour. But the story is more than this. It’s the story of illicit love affairs, secrets and double identities.

Sometimes the individual characters overwhelm the spy plot in this novel. If you are expecting a dramatic Cold War novel with double crosses and secret identities, there isn’t much of that. It is primarily about Irina, a young woman who applies to the Agency as a typist, but is singled out for her skills and potential anger against Russia. (She comes from a Russian background). The story is as much about Irina’s personal growth as she discovers who she is and what she wants. To the collective typists, she is a mystery and to the reader, she is still somewhat of a mystery. Irina isn’t the type to lay herself bare (she does so very few times in the book) and occasionally it is difficult to understand her motivations. In contrast, Sally is much more of an open book, straightforward and cynical having lived the Agency life for years. I warmed to Sally more as a reader as she isn’t afraid to show her feelings, good or bad. Teddy, Irina’s boyfriend, starts off as an interesting character but is consigned to the background as the book continues. I know little about Boris and Olga (nor have I read Doctor Zhivago), so I don’t feel I can comment on how real people are portrayed in the book.

Overall, the story is incredibly entertaining. The writing style is straightforward, without hiding any secrets or red herrings. I found the drama dropped off a little after the book was distributed to the Russian people and became more of a story about the relationship between Sally and Irina. However, The Secrets We Kept is a solid debut novel that covers a little-known period of history.

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