Monday, July 8, 2013

The Book of Secrets by Elizabeth Joy Arnold (2013)

I must have been in a bookish frame of mind when I was browsing Netgalley last time, because the next book on my reading list is also about books and set in a book store – The Book of Secrets, by Elizabeth Joy Arnold. The story opens with Chloe in her rare and used bookshop, a converted Victorian mansion that seems to suit perfectly the type of books they sell – the very old and delicate first editions that need to be stored in temperature-controlled boxes and only handled while wearing gloves as well as pulpy paperback thrillers. It soon becomes clear that this charming bookspace has some very dark undertows – Chloe arrives home one day to find a note from her husband, who has left without warning and without explaining when he will be back. We soon find out that Chloe and Nate’s relationship is damaged and complicated and she has been sleeping with a friend of her and Nate’s, Daniel. While trying to find out where money in the company account has gone, Chloe discovers a secret notebook that contains a series of letters written in a code that she and Nate developed when she was a child. You see, on her eight birthday (which her mother forgot) Chloe wagged school and went exploring. She stumbled on to what seemed to her a magical land – the household of the Sinclairs (Grace, Nate and Cecilia), a homeschooled religious family who lived down the street from her. The Sinclairs introduced the young unhappy Chloe to the magical world of Narnia and she and they became involved in an intense forbidden friendship based around a love of books and each other. The novel follows these two strands: one in the present day where Chloe tries to find her husband and address the problems with the shop and her relationships and one in the past, where Chloe deciphering Nate’s coded book brings back memories of past pleasures and explains the horrors of the abuse the Sinclair children dealt with at the hands of their parents.

This is a dead baby novel. I apologise for the bluntness of that statement but the dead-baby trope is one of my least favourite of all the tropes. It is so inherently sad (dead baby!) that lazy authors use it instead of decent writing and storytelling to generate feeling (like this book, which I hated hated hated). The murder of a baby is so horrifying that reading about it can make a reader feel literally sick (Sonya Hartnett and your baby-murdering ways, I’m looking at you) and a baby who dies from neglect represents the worst parts of society (Sonya Hartnett, again. I would not let this author babysit my children). Like with the Holocaust, if you’re going to write a dead baby novel, it needs to offer something new other than just horror or a lazy way to evoke emotion. Fortunately, Arnold manages this, with the sadness and grief associated with a lost child working as an everpresent hum in the background of the book: not the point of the novel but adding another level of meaning, sadness and grief.

What I think this novel is really about is fatherhood and the ongoing consequences of absent or abusive fathers. It asks us to evaluate what being a good or bad father really means. The book also draws our attention to how fragile and unreliable memory is and how what can seem true can, in fact, just be a different way of remembering. I found the role of reading in this book really beautiful – books speak to the characters in the novel, providing an escape from their everyday existence and explaining life and love. Books, in The Book of Secrets, are friends - not inanimate objects covered with printed words but real, living, breathing forces of life. How the author wrote about books and reading was one the things I enjoyed about this novel.

However, the book is not perfect. Arnold uses foreshadowing to introduce the present day story to the past story (like ‘And little did I know or understand what Grace had experienced when her relationship ended’. End chapter. Start new chapter. ‘Grace was in love….’). That’s fine and it means the book flows well but at times I felt the storyline set in the past dragged a little bit because, well, you already told me what happened. I also felt that the closer that I got to the end of the book (and I got to the end of the book very quickly because this is a very engrossing read!) the story got more and more unrealistic – my suspension of disbelief was stretched close to breaking a few times. The other odd thing that jarred a little bit for me was the name of the main character, Chloe. I date her at around about 45 years old, which means she would have been born in the ‘70s and I don’t know any Chloes that age. It felt like the name was too young for her. I don’t know, since I had the same quibble with the last book I reviewed, maybe I’m just being a bit fussy or it's a regional difference.

I would definitely recommend this book, especially for a plane ride or a holiday – it’s that kind of story. The Book of Secrets reminded me a lot of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn or Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson, so if you liked those, definitely look this one up. I give it 3 stars.

This book was supplied to me by the publisher via Netgalley but these thoughts and views are my own.

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