The Secrets We Kept: A novel

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Release Date: 
September 16, 2019
Reviewed by: 

“a remarkable debut novel . . . meticulously researched and a sure bestseller.”

By the late 1950s, novelist Boris Pasternak was considered to be out of touch with modern Soviet culture, and he openly supported a less than flattering attitude toward the Bolshevik Revolution. In his classic novel, Doctor Zhivago, he included ideology that was deemed unacceptable to leaders at the Kremlin, and its publication was suppressed throughout the Soviet Union. Though Soviet officials denied its initial publication, Pasternak found sympathetic backers in other countries and despite a concerted and strenuous effort by the Kremlin and its allies, the novel was eventually released in November 1957 in Italy.

Flash forward to 2014 when nearly 100 Cold War era CIA documents were declassified and unsealed. Within these files were discovered the depths at which the US government was involved in sowing discord among Soviet citizenry with the covert distribution of Russian-language copies of Doctor Zhivago behind the Iron Curtin.

In Lara Prescott’s electrifying debut novel, The Secrets We Kept, she attempts to spin this real-life tale of espionage into a work of historical fiction. Prescott is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. She also studied political science at American University in Washington, D.C. and international development in Namibia and South Africa. Prior to beginning a writing career, Prescott worked as a political campaign consultant.

The Secrets We Kept is set during the height of the Cold War and the plot revolves around the adventures of two ordinary secretaries who are pulled out of their mundane typist assignments at the CIA and given the mission of a lifetime. Their objective: to smuggle the novel Doctor Zhivago out of the Russia, where no one dare publish it, and help the author Boris Pasternak distribute the work around the world.

Secretary: a person entrusted with a secret. From the Latin secretus, secretum. We all typed, but some of us did more. We spoke no word of the work we did after we covered our typewriters each day. Unlike some of the men, we could keep our secrets.”

The heroines Sally Forrester and Irina Drozdov prove that they aren’t merely typists but capable spies. Within this novel, Prescott manages to cleverly capture the essence of the Cold War era in the West by means of the lifestyle of her main characters and manages to accurately portray the political and sexual attitudes that were prevalent in the workplace of the time period.

While in the East, Prescott does a brilliant job of portraying the sense of paranoia and dread that existed between Pasternak’s mistress Olga Ivinskaya, a woman who spent several years in a labor camp because of her association with the famous novelist. “Each night, they’d pull one woman out at a time and return her to Cell No. 7 hours later, red-eyed and silent. I steeled myself each night to be taken but was still surprised when they finally did come.”

The Secrets We Kept is a remarkable debut novel and Prescott’s fictionalized interpretation of the Soviet Union’s suppression and the CIA’s covert distribution of Doctor Zhivago is meticulously researched and a sure bestseller. Although the back and forth between timelines was a bit confusing, this fact does not diminish the novel’s powerfully suspenseful nature and sweeping drama. The reader is easily transported back in time to the Cold War era with stylishly written dialogues and loads of intrigue.