The Secrets We Kept…
About the Book:
Sold in twenty-five countries and poised to become a global literary sensation, Lara Prescott’s dazzling first novel about the women in the CIA’s typing pool and the fate of Boris Pasternak’s banned masterpiece is a sweeping page turner and the most hotly anticipated debut of the year.
The September pick for Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine Book Club
TWO FEMALE SPIES. A BANNED MASTERPIECE. A BOOK THAT CHANGED HISTORY.
1956. A celebrated Russian author is writing a book, Doctor Zhivago, which could spark dissent in the Soviet Union. The Soviets, afraid of its subversive power, ban it.
But in the rest of the world it’s fast becoming a sensation.
In Washington DC, the CIA is planning to use the book to tip the Cold War in its favour.
Their agents are not the usual spies, however. Two typists – the charming, experienced Sally and the talented novice Irina – are charged with the mission of a lifetime: to smuggle Doctor Zhivago back into Russia by any means necessary.
It will not be easy. There are people prepared to die for this book – and agents willing to kill for it. But they cannot fail – as this book has the power to change history.
Stories about the Cold War era and life ‘behind the Iron Curtain’ have begun to intrigue me of late. Drawing on facts gleaned from declassified CIA documents pertaining to its secret Zhivago mission, The Secrets We Kept fills in the gaps, with fiction, of the incredible story behind the story that is Doctor Zhivago.
‘They had their satellites, but we had their books. Back then, we believed books could be weapons – that literature could change the course of history. The Agency knew it would take time to change the hearts and minds of men, but they were in it for the long game. Since its OSS roots, the Agency had doubled down on soft-propaganda warfare – using art, music, and literature to advance its objectives. The goal: to emphasize how the Soviet system did not allow free thought – how the Red State hindered, censored, and persecuted even its finest artists. The tactic: to get cultural materials into the hands of Soviet citizens by any means.’
I never studied literature at University so in many respects, I am rather ignorant about the stories behind some of the world’s greatest classics. The upside of this: there’s always an opportunity to find out something new. I haven’t read Doctor Zhivago, nor have I watched any adaptations. I’ve always had a bit of a fear of Russian literature which I can only attribute to the fact that the books are all so thick. I fear they might be complex too, so these two factors merged together have resulted in me never indulging in any Russian literature at all. This story behind Doctor Zhivago was very intriguing in itself, but the author of The Secrets We Kept didn’t stop there, and the resulting novel is one that grips from beginning to end, the layers of secrets and elements of danger weaving together in a manner that leaves the reader racing through the pages, your own tension mounting in tune with that on the page. In short, this is a sensational novel, in every sense of the word.
‘The initial internal memo described Zhivago as “the most heretical literary work by a Soviet author since Stalin’s death,” saying it had “great propaganda value” for its “passive but piercing exposition of the effect of the Soviet system on the life of a sensitive, intelligent citizen.” In other words, it was perfect.’
The novel is told from a range of perspectives, alternating between the East and the West, which I felt worked really well. This is at its heart a story about women, as much as it is about a banned manuscript. It’s a complicated story told in the least complicated manner; I honestly couldn’t put it down. I particularly enjoyed the chapters told from the perspective of The Typists – very illuminating. There is so much within this story to think about, but one thing that struck me more than anything else was the disregard for consequence on the part of the CIA. I found myself at first getting very caught up in the thrill of the plan: get a hold of the banned manuscript, translate it back into Russian and then smuggle it into the USSR. What can the Russian authorities do, when the book falls into so many different people’s hands, despite their best efforts at banning it? Turns out they could do plenty and it’s this side of the story that left me uneasy. It’s kind of like upsetting the applecart without sticking around to see what happens to the apples. Sure, the applecart has been destabilised, but what of the fate of the apples? The apples still exist. The fate of the apples should be equally as important as what’s going on with the cart.
The consequences of Doctor Zhivago being published globally whilst banned in Russia had far reaching consequences for its author, and even more so for his mistress and her children, who suffered greatly at the hands of KGB ‘justice’. The initial foreign publication was by Italian publisher and lover of literature, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. He set the ball rolling on what was to become a Nobel Prize winning novel. The CIA capitalised on what was already shaking up authorities within the USSR by obtaining a copy, having it translated back into Russian, publishing cheaper light weight versions and then distributing them to visiting Russians at the 1958 World Expo in Bussels. From here, Doctor Zhivago spread through the black market in Russia. It was this same year, 1958, that the novel was awarded the Nobel Prize. You can imagine the Russian authorities were pretty, ahem, annoyed at the entire affair. Someone needed to pay.
Which brings us to the author and his mistress, Olga Ivinskaya. While Boris Pasternak had long been on the KGB’s watch list for his anti-Soviet sentiments conveyed through his poetry, it was Olga who bore the brunt of Boris’s inability to toe the line. Prior to Doctor Zhivago being published, she spent three years in the Gulag simply because she was his girlfriend. The KGB figured, as you do, that by punishing Olga, Boris would cease writing the novel they had heard so many juicy rumours about. It didn’t work. Olga later was sentenced to eight years back in the Gulag after Boris’s death, purely as punishment for not ‘stopping Zhivago and controlling Boris more effectively’. They also imprisoned her daughter for a year on bogus charges of hiding foreign earnings. Olga was quietly released after serving four years. But where was the CIA in all of this? Probably off upsetting other applecarts. Don’t worry about those apples. They’ll sort themselves out.
And then there’s the story of The Typists, all university qualified women, some former highly experienced WWII agents, all relegated to the typing pool within the CIA. The misogyny rampant throughout the organisation was just appalling. Sally’s experiences are a dire example of just how disposable the skills of women were. And I have to say, hell hath no fury like a woman ignored – no, I haven’t misquoted, I just feel in this instance, ignored is more apt than scorned.
The manner in which this story is told is both clever and cutting. I really enjoyed the author’s style and the way in which the novel was structured. There’s some clever work done with the headings of chapters as the novel progresses which amused me to no end. It’s rather a long novel, but it doesn’t feel that way while you’re reading it. When I say I devoured it, I’m not joking, I didn’t want to stop reading. Needless to say, this one comes highly recommended to you from me. One of my top reads of the year, for sure.
Thanks is extended to Penguin Random House Australia for providing me with a copy of The Secrets We Kept for review.
About the Author:
Lara Prescott received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, Austin. Before she started the MFA, she was an animal protection advocate and a political campaign operative. Her stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The Hudson Review, Crazyhorse, BuzzFeed, Day One, Tin House Flash Friday, and other places. She won the 2016 Crazyhorse Fiction Prize (and Pushcart honorable mention) for the first chapter of The Secrets We Kept, which she spent years researching.
The Secrets We Kept
Published by Penguin Random House Australia – Imprint: Hutchinson
Released 3rd September 2019