The Secret by Katherine Johnson – a book of tangled betrayal and long term guilt

Historic secrets, lifelong loves, accidental betrayals; this is a book of many layers, historically and emotionally, as women and men find themselves swept up in huge events. The Italian setting is beautifully described as three generations wonder about the truth of love, guilt and death. The secrets which have defined a generation of life in a small town have become too difficult to keep, but will there be any good in revealing them as new life returns to buildings and a landscape scarred by war. A complex, moving and beautifully written story, this novel carries the reader along smoothly as old wounds and deep hurt threatens the fortunes of a new generation. I was so glad to receive a copy of this powerful book which will linger in my mind for some time.

This is a clever novel which covers a narrative from the 1940s, briefly 1992 and 2018. The story is also told from several points of view, including Sonia, Martina, Irena and some of the people, though the story is always told in the third person. A baby is found, though this small sign of hope is overlaid by the overwhelming sense of tragedy that pervades the village. A woman, now dead, has always been silently blamed for the loss of many villagers during the War at the hands of German soldiers. Her daughter suffers from a lifetime of accusation and blame, and even decades later there is still a mysterious distrust of the Villa Leonida which has seen several tragedies. It is only gradually that the reader learns the truth of what truly happened, the missed opportunities and the emotional battles fought. There are many coincidences here, but it is a small town and it is probable that the portrayal of secrets being kept is probably reasonably accurate.

This is a satisfying novel, with many twists and turns with some genuine surprises. The 2018 generation can see the opportunities in a recognisable way; a fashionable restaurant does seem possible in such a setting. The incipient threat which pervades the novel is well handled, but there are still one or two mysteries that I did not follow and were perhaps unnecessarily confusing. The romance element works on several levels, the immediately obvious youthful romance developing into real, consideration for others. There are parts of this book which are grim, but it also contains some light, some hope as revelations emerge between people. Johnson effectively conveys the sense of threat and sadness, betrayal and grief, but definitely keeps things moving. This is not a sad book, as there are times of some joy, and there are also some good memories and significant photographs. I liked the concept of the recording of memories which explains many secrets to some of the characters and the reader, which was effectively handled. Some loose ends remained at the end, and this novel must have taken a lot of plotting to keep all the storylines going so well. This is a competently handled narrative with a skilful use of writing techniques and specific storylines which blend well together. If anything there was a little too much going on, but the overall effect works well. A good, well written book which I found very readable.

Lots of good books are piling up for me to read and review, and I am looking forward to exploring them. So keep watching this space!