Mild, spicy, or burn it all down?: Secrets in novels

Early on in our relationship, my husband and I vowed to start as we meant to continue – honestly and openly. Certainly, on our very first date I made it clear that I had no interest in electricity (he’s an electronics engineer) and that I preferred to eat breakfast on my own (unless transported to some amazing 5 star location, but I digress). It took him several more dates to fess up that he was a Ham Radio enthusiast. I think he knew it would add little to his allure. To be honest, it would have been a challenging hobby to keep secret.

So the revelation of riveting secrets is unlikely to play a big part in any fictionalised account of my life. But that is not true of most novels which hide at least one secret, and sometimes many more. But like any good curry – not all secrets are the same. There are secrets and then there are SECRETS.  So much so that I have devised a Spicy Secrets rating scale based on my three most recent reads:

The Korma: In the korma the level of secret combustion is low. The fallout is almost non-existent and the blandness quotient is about the most dangerous ingredient. Korma secrets usually originated in the past and don’t really influence the present. In the case of The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, Arthur’s wife kept her fascinating life prior to meeting Arthur quite separate from her very happy marriage to him. Just one charm bracelet (discovered after her death) causes a flicker of unease. But no real harm ensues, and it is a sweet, if slightly formulaic, tale.

Things We Nearly KnewThe Balti: the balti secret is going to make someone uncomfortable, possibly very uncomfortable. Balti secret keepers like to live close to, but not right on, the precipice. Things We Nearly Knew is an excellent example of the mid-range secrecy novel. I love novels set in middle America with its low horizons, blue sky, trailer parks and run down motels. This novel has all that, and so much more: secretive Arlene, her search for a mystery man, and the resulting unravelling of more than one middle-aged lothario – all this achieved through the author’s use of pitch perfect dialogue.

The Pilot's Wife
Anita Shreve (1946-2018)

The Vindaloo: The vindaloo secret is going to take a lot of people down. It hits hard, below the belt, causes maximum discomfort and long-lasting after-effects. Recently deceased Anita Shreve (1946-2018) hit the vindaloo jackpot with her 1998 novel The Pilot’s Wife which brought in to sharp focus the bloodbath potential of a deep secret kept from a wife. In 1998, book group after book group reeled under the notion of a husband with another life complete with all the necessary accessories (think another home, another wife and other children) and how we were sure we would have known.

In writing (as in life) there is a constant push-pull between privacy and secrecy; between cruelty and protectiveness; between honesty and lying. You plot your own course, and hope you never become famous enough to attract the deadly curiosity of a nosy novelist.

I believe I will be safe. How about you?