The Keeper of Secrets is written by Cambridge, New Zealand author, Julie Thomas. I first heard about Thomas and her book over a year ago in an article in the New Zealand Herald. I had just published my first novel and was intrigued and inspired by her story as she, too, penned her novel while others slept and while she maintained a full-time career. I was also captured by her success at the time. After rejections from publishing houses, Thomas published her novel as an e-book and sales soared on Amazon. After that success, she was picked up by HarperCollins and re-worked the book as we know it today.
The book certainly deserves its success and critical acclaim. It tells the story of the Horowitz family during both World War II and modern day. The family is practically obliterated during the holocaust, separated into concentration camps, many of them killed. Their possessions are stolen, including their most valuable violin, an item of inestimable worth to the world as well. The key figure of this era, Simon Horowitz, survives and it is his grandson, Daniel, who is the protagonist of the modern era plot-line. Daniel is a fourteen-year old prodigy who conflicts with his mother over his right to play baseball with his friends, resulting in his refusal to play the violin any longer. Much of the story is developed and shaped by Raphael Gomez, the conductor and advocate for Daniel who, in his attempt to resolve the familial dispute, discovers more about the family’s past and draws connections to the lost violin.
Thomas’ prose is crisp and efficient, well edited and very readable. Her strength is certainly in her ability to integrate her passion and knowledge of classical music and instruments into the storyline in a way that is accessible to readers lacking familiarity with such content. Most of her characters are strong and vivid, particularly Simon and Raphael. Her writing in the modern era at the beginning and the end of the book read, for me, like a young adult novel whereas her writing in the middle of the book covering the holocaust era is much more sophisticated and engrossing.
Even in the middle section, it took me a bit to warm up to her story-telling. Perhaps after exposure to so many books and films about the holocaust, it felt like she was setting a scene that had already been set by others and in better ways. However, the backdrop she creates is absolutely necessary and is done well enough to prepare you for the key turning point when young Simon is caught playing the violin by the Nazi guard. It’s a compelling scene and the book is stronger from there.
Similarly, the subsequent background storyline of Sergei Valentine skips along and, at times, I wished Thomas would slow down as I didn’t feel like I was getting to know this important character well enough – or that I wasn’t feeling any empathy for him as was intended. However, by the time this storyline ended with the death of Yulena, I did feel quite badly for the future gregarious Russian. I also really did want to find out how the story would end which is a credit to Thomas’ ablity to build tension with the various (though not overly complicated) strands she had woven. The book is not a mystery, as Thomas reveals much by this point, but it does make you want to find out how things will be resolved.
As for the resolution, I was only partially satisified – too happy an ending for me and perhaps some characters acting out of character. However, by the end, I felt I’d read a decent book, written well and with genuine heart and passion by a very good New Zealand author.
Buy The Keeper of Secrets on Amazon.
Antony Millen is a Canadian living and writing in New Zealand and the author of Redeeming Brother Murrihy: The River to Hiruharama and Te Kauhanga: A Tale of Space(s).