Review: A Book of Secrets, by Kate Morrison

Jacaranda | 25 March 2021
Paperback| Historical Fiction| £8.99
ISBN: 9781913090678| eISBN: 9781909762701

About the Book
A Book of Secrets tells the story of a West African girl hunting for her lost brother through an Elizabethan underworld of spies, plots and secret Catholic printing presses.

Susan Charlewood is taken from Ghana (then known as Guinea) as a baby. Brought to England, she grows up as maidservant in a wealthy Catholic household. Living under a Protestant Queen in late 16th Century England, the family risk imprisonment or death unless they keep their faith hidden.

When her mistress dies Susan is married off to a London printer who is deeply involved in the Catholic resistance. She finds herself embroiled in political and religious intrigue, all while trying to find her lost brother and discover the truth about her origins.

The book explores the perils of voicing dissent in a state that demands outward conformity, at a time when England is taking its first steps into the long shadow of transatlantic slavery and old certainties about the shape of the universe itself are crumbling.

A Book of Secrets gives a striking new perspective on the era and lets one of the thousands of lost Elizabethan voices, speak out loud.

My Review

Thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours and to the publisher and author for my copy of this book.

The Rosie Synopsis

Nsowah, known as Susan, was born in Guinea, now Ghana, the daughter of an Akan Omanhene’s sister. With her mother, Ama, and brother, Kofi, Nsowah are taken prisoner during an attack by neighbours on the Omanhene’s home. They are sold to the Portuguese, along with hundreds of others. Nsowah is a baby. Their status as royalty means that Ama, Nsowah and Kofi are kept on deck rather than in the hold. Because of this, they survive. The Portuguese ship is attacked by Hawkins, a famous privateer, and the little family are destined for England instead of the New World or Spain.

In England, Nsowah becomes Susan, and Ama, Katherine. Kofi was once again kidnapped in Seville. Nsowah and Ama are given as a gift from John Hawkins to his friend Framfield, a gentleman with interest in ironworks in the Sussex Weald. Framfield needs a maid for his daughter, Anne, and another for his wife, Lady Katherine. Ama and Nsowah will do very well. They are not slaves, but they are not free. Ama dies a few years after arriving at Framfield, the family home, and Nsowah, called Suky by the family and servants, is raised as a member of the Framfield family, educated to run a household and given an education.

But the Framfield’s are Catholic in dangerous times and Susan learns to follow her master in balancing her beliefs with the law and to hide her religion, while she and Anne learn the arts of the intelligencer from Lady Katherine, who helps fugitive Catholic priests and hopes for a rebellion or invasion to overthrow Queen Elizabeth.

When, at 18, Susan and Anne both become sick and Anne dies, Lady Katherine goes mad and blames Susan. At the same time Sir Thomas’ careful balancing act falls apart and he is arrested. TO protect Susan, he sends her to London to marry a Printer called John Charlewood, a man many years older than Susan with connections to the Catholic underground.

In London, Susan is drawn into international intrigues and local parish gossip, has children and becomes entangled in dangerous plans. Only daring can save her and John from a traitor’s death.

In 1592, a widow with a son, Susan is confronted with a ghost from her past, a memory of those daring days in the 1580s, and she has a choice to make.

The Good

I immediately started reading this book after finishing ‘Hotel Cartagena’ and didn’t stop until I finished. I am writing this at 2.20 am 21st March 2021. Please excuse any spelling or grammar mistakes, I’m finally dropping down from the hyperfocus alertness. Also, my hands are hurting because it’s cold and I’m typing a lot.

I was absolutely gripped by this story. I read it from cover to cover in a single evening, so it must be good. I like Susan, she’s a complex character with an interesting mind. Her journey from privilege to Guild wife, her difficult choices and actions as she tries to find a way for them to survive, and her search for her brother and information about where she comes from make her a multifaceted character.

The dark times are evoked strongly in the book, and the complex web of spies and hidden messages, the conflict between nation and religion, personal beliefs and social convention build that. The reader gets a real sense of the times, and of the chaos of London.

I really liked the way the author emphasised the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic make-up of London’s population in the early modern period, with Spanish and Portuguese Jews or Conversos (Jewish people who converted to Christianity), Africans, mainly from Guinea (Ghana) or from Northern Africa, many of whom arrived as (slaves) servants of Spanish or Portuguese traders, as this was in the period when England first got involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and didn’t have much contact with the people of Ghana because the Spanish and Portuguese had cornered the market. There were Flemings and French Huguenots fleeing persecution on the Continent and merchants from all over Europe.

I was concerned when I first saw a picture of the author, because I wasn’t sure it was the place of a white person to tell an African woman’s story. How one experiences life is, unfortunately, affected by the colour of one’s skin. I can’t know what it’s like to be subjected to racist abuse, and neither can the author, but I can, and the author did, listen to the experiences of modern people of African descent in Britain. Morrison acknowledges her own qualms about the ethics of writing an African character and trying to show fairly what she would have experienced in London in the 1580s and 1590s, the social stigma of her dark skin, her ‘foreignness’ in the eyes of her neighbours, when Morrison is a white woman in the 21st century. Is she appropriating someone else’s story?

I don’t know, but if someone with a similar background to Nsowah writes a novel about the time period, I hope they have an equal chance of being published based on the quality of the storytelling.

Susan/Nsowah is also Catholic in a time period when it was dangerous to be Catholic in England. Morrison, in addition to having the book read and checked by British African people also has the book read by Catholic people. You have tog et the details right, and the authors does a really good job, as far as my knowledge goes. Walsingham really was a nasty piece of work, the arguments between England and Spain did get very nasty and it all got a bit out of hand.

Life events make Susan question her beliefs and her intellectual curiosity finds her reading new books as they arrive, questioning the dogma she is brought up with, but keeping it to herself. There is a passage in the final chapters where Susan compares the words and thoughts allowed to women as a narrow road they have to stay on. Don’t question, don’t learn, don’t think for yourself. She then applies the same to governments and laws keeping people without power in line. It’s a good metaphor.

The Not-So-Good

Liked everything.

The Verdict

I found this book a colourful, lively representation of the times, with an intelligent main character and strong plot.

About the Author

Kate Morrison is a British debut novelist. She studied English Literature at New Hall College, Cambridge and worked as a journalist and a press officer. Morrison was mentored by Ros Barber, the award-winning author of The Marlowe Papers and Devotion. She was a visiting scholar with the Book, Text, and Place 1500-1700 Research Centre at Bath Spa University. Kate Morrison currently lives in West Sussex with her family.

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