Tuesday 22 October 2019

The Secrets We Kept: The year’s most-awaited debut novel tells an astonishing real-life story

Fiction: The Secrets We Kept

Lara Prescott Hutchinson, hardback, 430 pages, €15.99

Epic: Yuri (Omar Sharif) with Lara (Julie Christie) in 'Doctor Zhivago'
Epic: Yuri (Omar Sharif) with Lara (Julie Christie) in 'Doctor Zhivago'
The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott
Author Lara Prescott
Olga Ivinskaya, the inspiration for Lara in Dr Zhivago

Lara Prescott's highly anticipated debut novel offers two stories for the price of one. The first centres on the women who staffed the CIA's typing pool in Washington in the 1950s. As a young Russian émigré with a hatred for the Soviet Union, Irina is quickly recruited as a spy to help disseminate Boris Pasternak's banned novel Doctor Zhivago around the world as part of America's struggle against communism.

Running alongside that is the story of Olga Ivinskaya, Pasternak's real-life lover and inspiration for the character of Lara in his classic novel. That part of the saga begins as a pregnant Olga is arrested by the Ministry of State Security and taken for questioning to Moscow's infamous Lubyanka building on accusations of slandering "Soviet writers with patriotic views".

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The Secrets We Kept was acquired for more than seven figures in a hotly-contested auction, and is being launched as this summer's lead debut fiction title by the winning publisher, with 200,000 copies printed in the US alone. It has also been sold to a further 28 countries, whilst film rights have been snapped up by the producers of La La Land. The thirtysomething Prescott could not have hoped for a better start to her career as a novelist.

None of that ought to matter when it comes to reading her book - it either works as a novel, or it doesn't - but it's hard not to be influenced by those numbers. It's a solid piece of commercial fiction, though it does, after a promising start, take a while to get going; but it's still something of a mystery why publishers were quite so excited when it landed on their desks.

Olga was certainly a formidable individual in her own right, who would be sent to detention camps twice for her association with Pasternak. In interviews, Prescott describes her as "an incredible woman whose story deserves to be told." But the thing is... it already has been, not least in a 2017 biography, Lara, by Anna Pasternak, granddaughter of Boris's sister. Prescott has researched this history extensively, but her fictionalised retelling does feel a little second hand at times. Has she actually added anything to Olga's story, or our understanding of it?

There is some lovely writing here - as she is sent for the first time to Siberia, Olga gazes from the train as Moscow gradually disappears with the words "then come the trees, then the countryside, then snow, then snow" - but it also feels awkwardly novelettish in places.

Lara Prescott admits in acknowledgements at the end of the book that her novel contains "direct descriptions and quotes, including excerpts of conversations, as documented in first-hand accounts"; but it's worth asking if that goes far enough to play fair with readers.

The sections of the book which feel most authentic are those set in Washington in the 1950s. The pen portrait of the US capital during that period is seductive. It's been described as "a proto-feminist Mad Men set in the world of international espionage", a jingle which captures its flavour exactly. These fearsomely intelligent women, many of whom undertook dangerous missions during the war, are suddenly relegated to the role of secretaries in peacetime, whilst mediocre men are promoted above them. The reader shares their frustration.

It's evident that those recruited by the CIA to translate books into Russian and spread them throughout the communist east for propaganda purposes had a genuine passion for literature as well as freedom, and the agency soon becomes "a bit of a book club with a black budget", with earnest exchanges going on for hours.

"Then there was Zhivago", is how the novel introduces what is, ostensibly, its central theme, 159 pages in. Banned in the east, it was given the code name AEDINOSAUR by the CIA. It was, Prescott writes, "the mission that would change everything... This was not just a book, but a weapon."

This is a fascinating story, but it's also been told before, most comprehensively in 2014's The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, The CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book. Prescott acknowledges that this exhaustive work, by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, was "an indispensable asset". But again, is a brief namecheck at the end enough for novelists to pay credit to the tireless leg work of researchers and historians, without whom their own work could not have existed?

What is entirely Prescott's own is the story of Irina, and her fellow, more experienced, spy Sally Forrester. Sally is a particularly affecting character, and, since this is a book about spies, there is the usual complement of lies and double crossings. Woven into the narrative intrigue are a number of touching love stories, including one which allows Prescott to explore how the McCarthyite "Red Scare" found echoes in a widespread paranoia about gays and lesbians in the US government. One cannot help wishing that Prescott had explored this world more deeply, rather than kitting out the novel unconvincingly in borrowed Russian clothes.

Great writers, such as Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall, take a welter of historical and biographical details and transmute them into literary gold. The suspicion which hangs over this book is that Prescott has taken what was already biographical and historical gold and turned it into something much more prosaic. If a story has been told already and better, what's the point of doing it again? Prescott may find her unique voice in future novels, but The Secrets We Kept ultimately feels too derivative.

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