Friday, October 11, 2019

Review of The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott (2019, Knopf)

Post World War Two and Boris Pasternak is writing Doctor Zhivago. A famous poet and writer he has so far been spared Stalin’s purges, but his new novel is likely to get him branded as anti-Soviet and open him up to the associated persecution. Instead, his lover and muse, Olga Ivinskaya is sent to the gulags to suppress his ambitions to publish the book. In the US, the OSS has been disbanded to be replaced by the CIA, intent on spying on and destabilising the Soviets. Irina Drozdov, the daughter of a Russian émigré, lands a job in the CIA typing pool and is also pulled into training for field ops. Ex-OSS swallow Sally Forrester is re-hired as a receptionist and to help train Irina. Against the wishes of the recently released Olga, Pasternak gives permission to an Italian publisher to smuggle his novel outside of Russia and to translate and distribute it worldwide. Olga is fearful he has signed his own and her death warrant. The CIA see the novel as a way to sow unrest in the Soviet Union by smuggling multiple copies back behind the iron curtain. Irina’s role is help distribute the book to Soviets visiting Europe. While Doctor Zhivago is a hit, touching the lives of millions of readers, becoming a much loved movie, and helping Pasternak win the Nobel Prize, it has consequences for those associated with the writer and Irina and Sally.

The Secrets We Kept is the story of the writing and publication of Doctor Zhivago. Prescott tells the tale from multiple perspectives, shuttling back-and-forth between the USSR and its author Boris Pasternak and his mistress and muse, Olga Ivinskaya, and the members of the typing pool in the Soviet section of the CIA, and in particular an unnamed narrator, Irina Drozdov, a typist recruited to also become a field agent, and Sally Forrester, a glamourous ex-OSS swallow hired to help train Irina. The result is a multi-layered story told in multiple voices that tells the story behind the novel in a way that mimics the tale: two doomed love affairs, one in the East, one in the West, caught up in an on-going internal ideological battle and a wider war. The opening couple of chapters are fabulous: lively, engaging prose and strong hooks. After that the story holds attention, but the shuttling back and forth and multiple voices fragments the story a little and the pace slows, and the espionage angle firmly takes a back seat. The threads are never really pulled tightly back together again, and while the characterisation remains compelling, the tale kind of fizzled at the end, especially with respect to Irina and Sally. As a sidebar, the back cover blurb was clearly written by someone who did not read the book. Two secretaries are not pulled out of the typing pool to smuggle the book out of the USSR – one of them is placed into the pool to train the other, and one has the job of helping to smuggle it back in by distributing it to Soviets visiting the West. Overall, a thoughtful, interesting tale that at times sparkles but is a little uneven and lacked intrigue and tension.

1 comment: said...

I've got this on my TBR be honest, after reading your review I may move it down the pile a little! I'm usually a fan of any books featuring spying and subterfuge, so I'm a bit disappointed that aspect seems to take a back seat. Still, I'll give it a bash. Great review!