26 September 2023

The Secrets We Kept

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Reviewed by Robert Goodman.

By Lara Prescott, Penguin Random House.

Lara Prescott’s debut novel takes as its basis the true story of the writing and release of the novel Doctor Zhivago. The narration is often from the point of view of real participants in the story, including at one point Boris Pasternak himself, but also some fictional characters to carry readers further into the heart of the story. So that this becomes less a story of cold war shenanigans and much more about the lives caught up in those activities.

The overall plot follows the story of Pasternak’s manuscript, including the three years that his lover Olga spent in a gulag as a result of her relationship with the writer. Pasternak could not get the book published in the Soviet Union as it was seen as critical of the regime. He managed to send the manuscript to Italy where it was published in Italian and later in other languages. The CIA saw the book as a weapon in the cold war and worked to have it published in Russian and smuggled back into the Soviet Union where Pasternak continued to face political pressure, particularly after he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature.

While there are a range of point of view characters, including the typing pool at the CIA, the story revolves mainly around three women – Irina, Sally and Olga. Irina was brought to America as a child from Russia, from a job application to join the CIA typists she is drawn into a world of spies and dead drops. Sally, the femme fatal (or swallow), who used her charm during World War II to carry out missions for the OSS, ends up Irina’s trainer. Olga Vsevlodovna was Boris Pasternak’s lover, muse and later publicist and is widely reputed to be template for the character of Lara in Doctor Zhivago.

The chapter headings give an idea of the many different roles that these women are called on to play throughout their lives. Each former role showing as a crossing out above the latest. So that Olga, for example goes from being the muse to the rehabilitated woman (after coming out of the gulag), to the emissary and so on. While Olga’s is essentially a true story, Prescott is able to dig deeper into her themes through the relationship between Irina and Sally, in the secrets that they keep from each other, from the world and from themselves, secrets that have nothing to do with the Pasternak novel or its impact, and the consequences of those secrets.

Prescott uses the true story of the publication of Doctor Zhivago to explore the lives of women in the 1950s on both sides of the Cold War. She effectively manages the changing narrative styles, including first person, third person and the chorus of the typing pool to flesh out the story in creative ways. The Secrets We Kept is a strong, engaging and often fascinating debut novel.

This and over 400 more reviews can be found on Pile By the Bed.

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