I picked up an ARC of this book last year at BookExpo 2019. I thought it would be one of the first books I read when I got home but instead, it sat on my shelf for almost a year because apparently NOW is the right time to read it. Books are supposedly inanimate objects, but I swear some of them know exactly when to get themselves into my hands!
This thrilling spy novel is a tribute to the women who did top secret work during the Cold War, from typing to field work. It’s also a story about the uncontrollable power of literature to impact lives and how some people in some places pay a grim price for speaking the truth.
Rumor has it that the USSR’s most beloved writer, Boris Pasternak, is working on a new novel that might include elements that displease Stalin and his thought police. This sets in motion efforts by the USSR to contain the story and efforts by the CIA to use the novel against the communist regime as a propaganda tool behind the Iron Curtain.
Women are the prime actors in this novel: In the USSR there’s Olga, Pasternak’s mistress who both propels the novel into being and suffers for it. In the USA, Sally and Irina, two independent women at different points in their careers, carry out the work of the CIA and negotiating intrigues of their own. In the world of spies and espionage, some men may think they’re still in control of women but . . . well, this quote says it all:
“She spoke the way men spoke, and they listened. Not only that, but she scared the hell out of a few. Her perceived power may have come from the tightness of her skirt, but her real power was that she never accepted the roles men assigned her. They might’ve wanted her to look pretty and shut up, but she had other plans.”
In spy agencies “homosexuality” was/is seen as a liability because in heteronormative societies agents could be blackmailed over their non-conformity.
Prescott depicts sexuality as a weapon in a variety of ways throughout the novel and puts delightful twists on betrayal and revenge. She also shows how gay people are in some ways natural spies because society has already forced them into living double lives. As one character explains,
“A double is a bit of a misnomer: one person doesn’t become two. Rather, one loses a part of herself in order to exist in two worlds, never fully existing in either.”
And that is a glimpse into the hardship of living as a spy and the horror of living in the closet or of having to come out day-after-day-after-day as non-heterosexual people do if they want to live authentically in a society that assumes heterosexually.
The Secrets We Kept is original yet familiar and compulsively readable. If you’re looking for a page-turner, get a copy now. It’s a topnotch historically-based spy novel with women at center stage, a love story, a book about books and the enduring power of literature.
My Book Cougars cohost Emily and I did a buddy read of this novel last week. We made a short BookTube video that you can watch here: https://youtu.be/bj4HZT0OKE4. We’ll also discuss it on Episode 100 (coming 4/14/2020).