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There’s a reason why the phrase ‘stranger than fiction’ exists: that reality is often far more baffling than anything any writer could dream up. The premise for Lara Prescott’s much-lauded debut novel, The Secrets We Kept, underlines this, detailing real events involving the CIA, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and a plot to undermine the Soviet Union. It’s also a tale of women, feminism and sexism in the postwar era, and it’s a very engaging read indeed. No surprise then, that it’s a Reese Witherspoon Hello Sunshine pick and that it’s already been optioned for the big screen.

In the early pages, the women of the Agency’s typing pool reveal themselves. These are the best and the brightest, from ‘Radcliffe, Vassar, Smith’. Some speak Mandarin; some fly planes; some can ‘handle a Colt 1873 better than John Wayne’; others were legends during the war – yet now they’re relegated to the typing pool or some other desk with all but nothing to do. They’re dehumanised by their male colleagues, not even referred to by name, reduced to a list of attributes instead, ‘blondie’, ‘red’, ‘tits’, but this isn’t borne lightly. ‘We had our secret names for them too: grabber, coffee breath, teeth’. This is the battle of the sexes quietly played out in a Mad Men Cold War world; and against this backdrop unfolds the strangest of tales.

When Pasternak wrote his masterpiece Doctor Zhivago, it was banned, sight unseen, in his native country, something Khrushchev later expressed regret about when he read it. An epic, lyrical tale of the October Revolution and its aftermath, it wasn’t the kind of material that the Soviet authorities wanted its citizens to read. After it was smuggled out of the country and printed in Milan, it achieved global acclaim, Pasternak awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The CIA appropriated Pasternak’s novel into its covert publishing programme, which involved printing, smuggling and distributing banned literature to intellectuals in the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc.

In The Secrets We Kept, two secretaries, Irina and Sally, are extracted from the mundanity of the Agency’s typing pool and tasked with the mission of getting Pasternak’s book back into the USSR, because, of course, who would suspect a couple of pretty girls of espionage? Prescott juxtaposes the young women’s illicit relationship with the love affair of Pasternak and muse Olga Ivinskaya, the inspiration for Zhivago’s Lara.

Certainly, this is a book for Doctor Zhivago lovers, whether it’s the sweepingly romantic David Lean film version or the novel itself. The fact that Prescott draws on what was until fairly recently a secret part of American Cold War history makes the book all the more alluring. This is, after all, a dream of a story and Prescott utilises it well, holding our attention as she weaves a tale ripe with misogyny, discrimination and postwar paranoia, set against an attractive 1950s’ backdrop, where spies abound.

The Secrets We Kept also carries an important message: while words are the ultimate power, even the most beautiful can become propaganda in the wrong hands. And that, dear reader, is surely a lesson for our times?

 

Lara Prescott |The Secrets We Kept | Hutchinson | 5 Sept. 2019 | hardback

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Acknowledgements: Book text quotes © 2019 Lara Prescott. Many thanks to Anne Cater, as always, and to the publisher for sending a book proof and jacket image. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved.

 

Also of interest:By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’;‘Yvonne Battle-Fenton’s Rememembered‘; ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised‘; ‘We should all be feminists‘; The not-so-invisible woman: 150 greats in their own words’;Permission by Saskia Vogel‘; ‘Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Dialogue’s brilliant debut; ‘RW Kwon’s The Incendiaries’; ‘Beauty in translation – Roxanne Bouchard’s French Canadian noir‘; ‘How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original “Penguin Ten”‘; Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday – Romek Marber for Penguin Crime (book covers we love).

This review is © 2019 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Thank you so much.

 

 

 

 

 

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