Late last month I asked the author what she was reading. Marillier's reply:
Kate Morton is an Australian writer of meaty gothic mysteries, usually based on the uncovering of family secrets over several generations. Her novels are meticulously plotted and wonderfully imagined, with English settings that often feature a mysterious garden or old house. Within just a few years, Morton has become an internationally bestselling writer, much loved by her devoted readers.Visit Juliet Marillier's website.
I’ve just finished her new novel, The Secret Keeper, which begins in the 1960s with teenage Laurel, hiding in a tree house, witnessing an act of shocking violence. We move quickly to the present day, and a mature Laurel, now a successful actress, facing the terminal illness of her mother, Dorothy. Laurel realises she and her siblings know almost nothing of Dorothy’s life before she married their father, so she embarks on a mission to find out about her mother’s past and make sense of the terrible event she saw all those years ago, which was explained away at the time with a story she knew to be untrue. So unfolds a fascinating tale of wartime London and the young Dorothy’s relationship with the glamorous Vivien and her writer husband Henry, as well as Dorothy’s faithful sweetheart Jimmy.
The Secret Keeper had me reading deep into the night. It evokes the mood of London during the Blitz brilliantly, but keeps the focus on the characters, never over-loading the story with period detail. I admired the writer’s ability to incorporate a major twist, which caught me completely by surprise when it was revealed near the end. This will appeal to anyone who enjoys well-crafted historical fiction with a touch of the gothic.
J K Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, is the founder of an organisation called Lumos, which helps disadvantaged children. In her interviews she makes it clear how passionate she feels about this cause. Her first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, shows us how the welfare and educational systems in the UK fail vulnerable children; how apathy, prejudice, lack of funding and inefficiency can lead to the most horrific consequences for young people.
I was curious to read this, as I wondered whether the storytelling gift that made the Harry Potter books so popular could carry across into a contemporary adult novel dealing with gritty social issues. In Harry Potter I was able to overlook the sometimes clunky style because the world Rowling created was so engaging and the story so compelling.
I found The Casual Vacancy difficult to get through. The worthy message simply overwhelmed the storytelling. The novel is written in an omniscient voice, with rapid hopping from one character’s thoughts to another’s and a heavy overlay of the author’s attitudes and opinions. There’s a weight of telling rather than showing. The writing style sets a distance between the reader and the characters, most of whom did not come to life for me.
The teenage characters are drawn more effectively than the adults, and I did find myself caring about them and hoping they would overcome their various difficulties. The adult characters are often more like caricatures, but this is no village comedy. On the surface, The Casual Vacancy is a story about a local council election in a picture-perfect English community, brought about by the death, on page 2, of Barry Fairbrother, the only sympathetic adult in the book. The broad cultural and economic gulf between the leafy town of Pagford and the nearby council estate called The Fields is mirrored in the group of central characters. However, the deeper, more meaningful story develops from the way Barry Fairbrother’s death alters the future for one marginalised teenager.
This is a novel with a message, and that message is worthwhile. However, Rowling would have got her point across more effectively with defter storytelling and a lighter touch – we didn’t need the authorial sledgehammer. Humour and subtlety are great tools for conveying quite challenging subject matter; Terry Pratchett’s later novels demonstrate this brilliantly.
Read--Coffee with a Canine: Juliet Marillier & Pippa, Gretel, and Sara.
The Page 69 Test: Seer of Sevenwaters.
The Page 69 Test: Flame of Sevenwaters.