Friday, February 17, 2017

FFB: The Secret Keeper - Shirley Eskapa

"If you keep a secret properly, so that nobody but you knows about it, then it hasn't happened..."

THE STORY: Peter Pritchett-Ward has a diary into which his mother instructs him to write down all his secrets. She is leaving her husband because she knows he is in love with another woman. Peter knows this, too. His mother explains it as "your father's illness" and that for the next six months they will have several secrets to keep from Nigel, her husband and Peter's father. Be brave and patient she tells her son. If we win, we'll be a family again. If we lose, I will come back for you. Peter is unsure of the experiment but does his best to follow his mother's instructions. He does a lot of writing down of secrets. Along the way, the diary will also become a document of his slowly burning anger which leads to hatred which leads to violent fantasies which ultimately lead to tragedy.

THE CHARACTERS: The Secret Keeper (1982) is primarily about the Pritchett-Ward family and Ilsa du Four, the woman Nigel has fallen in love with. Though Caroline Pritchett-Ward is a central character we rarely get to know her as Eskapa chooses to have her appear offstage for the bulk of the novel. Additionally, we only know her through the observations of others. This is a subtly powerful device because Caroline ultimately is the main character although the title would have us believe it is Peter. For Caroline, though physically absent from the action, is ever present. Peter stays in contact with her, secretly of course, via clandestinely arranged phone calls and reports back to her on the progress of their experiment.

In the meantime, Nigel moves in with Ilsa and her asthmatic, spoiled brat of a son Jean-Pierre. Nigel has all but forgotten that he has his own family. He neglects his son and forgets his responsibilities as a father even though Peter is right there living under the same roof with the du Fours. Ilsa condemns Caroline as a heartless and "unnatural woman" for abandoning her son. The focus is always on what Caroline has done to Ilsa and Nigel and not what they have done to Caroline and her family. Nigel in essence is absorbed into Ilsa's family whose life consists of obsessively, often ruthlessly, maintaining her image among the wealthy members of the Mont Blanc country club in Geneva and keeping a watchful eye on her chronically ill son who she loves more than anyone else, including Nigel. All the while Peter suffers silently doing his best to win back his father's attention and love while believing wholeheartedly everything that his mother tells him and following her instructions to a tee.

Peter's diary eventually not only becomes a record of his secrets but an outlet for his hatred. He details violent and murderous fantasies in which he does in Jean-Pierre. A bully at his private school learns of Nigel's affair then taunts and humiliates Peter. The boy starts skipping classes to avoid the constant harassment, his grades plummet, and his simmering hatred previously confined to written word alone blazes into witnessed actions. He begins to spy on Ilsa who he grows to hate the most of anyone. He spends paragraphs on another murderous fantasy in which he repeatedly runs over Ilsa with a tractor. Her death is described with an adolescent's bloodlust.

Is Peter turning into a monster at the hands of his mother? She assures him she is coming back to Switzerland soon. All will be well. But will they achieve happiness at the expense of someone else's? Revenge may be sweet but can leave a very bitter aftertaste that will remain for months, maybe years.

INNOVATIONS: The novel is told in alternating viewpoints.  Eskapa begins in an omniscient narrative voice which allows us to know Nigel and Ilsa and all the supporting characters.  Every other chapter is told in first person in the pages of Peter's diary. The most notable part of the book, as mentioned earlier, is that Caroline is never allowed to be given her private thoughts. We only learn of what she is doing through the observations of others, mostly through Peter. Even the final chapter when she finally returns to Geneva and appears with both Peter and Nigel is told via the diary.

Peter's voice, for the most part, is captured well. Over the course of the novel he has a birthday and turns turns thirteen.  He sounds and behaves very much like a thirteen year old. Only on rare occasions do I get the idea that he's a much older but still a young man.  Eskapa does something very clever about halfway through the book when Peter talks about how he and his mother used to play word games. With the help of a college preparatory exam textbook she helped build his vocabulary by teaching him odd words like "opprobrious" and "asseverate". Peter knows these words can hardly be used in daily conversation but he has fun showing off. Anytime the syntax leans towards a more mature and literate voice Eskapa sort of gets away with it because of Peter's past wordplay.

When the story revolves around Ilsa, who at times threatens to take over the narrative, the book's tone is at its nastiest. Ilsa is portrayed as an ambitious woman who uses everyone and everything around her to achieve a status she doesn't really deserve. She exploits her sexuality to get powerful men to do her bidding.  She learns golf and becomes the best of the women players at the Mont Blanc club. Her devotion to Jean-Pierre borders on pathological obsession rather than maternal love. And her contempt for everyone, including Nigel, is slowly revealed over the course of the novel. When she invades Caroline's bedroom in an effort to get to know her through her belongings and wardrobe we realize what a superficial person she really is.

QUOTES: The first lesson from Madame Sanossian had been about hope. There was this simple Armenian proverb which is kind of like a formula. Hope gives strength because hope is strength.

The second proverb goes something like this: Encourage your enemies to believe you despair, so that hope may be your surprise weapon.

Ilsa was our enemy, right? Now Ilsa probably thinks that her enemy who is my Mom has given up, surrendered, retreated to London. Ilsa probably believes that she has conquered her enemy. My Mom hopes that Ilsa does not know the enemy is lying low, waiting to attack.

I don't like thinking about things. But I wonder is praying different from thinking? Praying seems easier -- because when you pray you hope, and when you think you worry.

THE AUTHOR: Shirley Eskapa was born and raised in South Africa. After marrying, she moved to Geneva where she lived with her husband Raymond for several years. Later she settled in London. While in college she studied sociology and psychology and later took a post graduate degree in international relations.

She began writing short stories which were published in The Telegraph, and the magazines Woman, Fair Lady, and Cornhill. The Secret Keeper was her second novel after Blood Fugue (1981), a romance featuring an interracial love affair which was banned by the apartheid regime. In 1984 she published Woman Versus Woman, a controversial non-fiction study of extramarital affairs with a focus on the wives and the "other women". Her findings based on interviews with 200 married women and 150 mistresses led to her thesis that extramarital affairs need not ever be a reason for divorce, that they can be resolved through stratagems between the women, and that most men are basically hardwired to have a "wandering eye" and prone to affairs either fantasized or real. The plot of The Secret Keeper can be seen as a fictional prototype of her theories about these types of reparable affairs.

For more on Eskapa see her in-depth obituary in The Telegraph.

EASY TO FIND? Looks pretty good. I found over one hundred copies for sale consisting of a variety of US and UK editions in hardcover and paperback. There are several signed copies out there, too. Be careful to look for the right copy of The Secret Keeper and enter Eskapa's name as author. The title itself is a popular one for women novelists.


  1. I like multiple point of view stories, though it is so often the case that authors don;t manage to make the authors sound distinctive enough to make it work. This one sounds very well done, so that's - another one to be added to the JFN TBR shelf! I always imagined that one day you'd review I book I had actually read already, but I am very happy to be the follower here mate :)

    1. I'm sure I've reviewed several books you've read before I had. You've led me to discover several books I'd probably never have found on my own (like the very excellent crime novel HAZELL PLAYS SOLOMON) and a helluva lot of movies that I very much enjoyed. We each have learned from one another. More power to the blogosphere!

    2. My typing really is getting woeful - using a phone has not helped! Sorry chum. And I meant characters rather than 'authors' the second time around, as I am sure you knew ... sheeesh!

  2. I've learned a thing or two here as well, John. And also realized that while I thought I was thoroughly versed in vintage authors - in truth I KNEW NOTHING - N O T H I N G ! ! !

    However, having said that, this book doesn't seem like something I'd enjoy though I might read it anyway just because of the diary pages - I like that sort of thing.

    1. Ages ago I once dreamed I would become a teacher. But dropped that career path in favor of the theater and playwriting. And look what happened! Accidental book reviewer and vintage mystery educator. What a roundabout way to get what you wish for.

      It's odd that this was marketed as a crime novel because truthfully it ought not be classified as one. It is suspenseful, but more as if to ask "What is Caroline really up to with her son?" The criminal aspect comes about as an accident in the last three chapters and there's a cover up before the unexpected resolution. It's like a melding of Charlotte Armstrong and Minette Walters, if you know those writers.

  3. Entertaining (and educational) review, John.

  4. Ha! I have read this book, but have never come across anyone else who has, nor read any reference to it or the author anywhere anytime. Your post is an excellent take on it, very good description and very fair. I think I was expecting more of a crime novel when I read it. But I did enjoy it, there were some very interesting aspects, as you highlight.

    1. I'm not surprised you have read this, Moira. You and I have a habit of reading the same unusual books by writers no one seems to care about. I remember our exchange about Robert Player and THE INGENIOUS MR STONE. I actually liked how the crime aspect happened only in the final pages. It was cleverly plotted out a with some subtle foreshadowing that I missed.

  5. Wonderful post, John! I'll have to get a hold of this book, it sounds very unusual.