Secrets. The word itself slaps us with something scary and ominous. It reeks of ghosts and irrevocable mistakes committed in the dark, hidden, buried so deep that, in time, they become ingrown, take on a life of their own, and mushroom in significance. And of course secrets have a siren’s call, sucking us into the page. Like the voice and the story line in this family saga, secrets make us turn the page.
In THE SECRETS THEY KEPT, a debut novel, Joanne Tombrakos presents the story of Elena Poulous, an attorney and member of a Greek-American family rich in tradition and large with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, living and dead. Elena struggles to get to the bottom of her family’s secrets, and in so doing, she connects to life.
The story opens with a surprise. The police knock on the door of her New York apartment and inform her of the death of a stranger who claimed her as his next of kin. As Elena begins to settle his affairs, she encounters a web of secrets that her family members have worked a lifetime to keep buried. In the end, she and others begin to change.
The recent past is brought to life through a box of letters found in the dead man’s apartment, a Pandora’s box if there ever was one:
She smelled the odor of it before she saw it. Musty, almost mildewy. There it sat, not a yard away from her. It was just a small square cardboard box with a lid.
Because of the author’s sense of storytelling, objects like the letter box take on a symbolic presence: a ring, a baby carriage rocking precariously on a dock, the triune number in liturgy, and, in Central Park, the bust of Giuseppe Mazzini. (The narrator informs the reader that Elena intends to find out the significance of the statue, and the statue becomes another index into the protagonist’s character.)
And of course there are letters and letters. Letters that tell secrets.
The sense of place is gripping, Manhattan, Astoria. The voice is strong.
The narrative weaves in and out of eras. It is 1949 in one chapter, 1958 in the next. Scenes take place in Astoria or in Elena’s West Side apartment shortly after the war or in the country of Elena’s childhood or in the novel’s present. They all serve the heart of the novel: the unraveling of secrets, the revelation of character.
The story is filled with minor characters, all connected somehow to the Poulous family–Athena and Rosa, being two of my favorites.
Themes include the destructive pervasiveness of secrets and how they wither us; the sometimes stultifying, other times revivifying nature of cult and family.
THE SECRETS THEY KEPT has it all, the story of a family, complex main characters whose growth we experience, an ending that answers most of our questions but leaves room for imagination. At times comedic, at times tragic, it is the story of secrets woven so deeply into the fabric of Elena’s Greek-American family that they remind us of our own.
I recommend the book to all who read not just for pleasure or to be swept up into a new world, but for self-knowledge.
My Rating: Five Stars
About the Author. Joanne Tombrakos is a writer, born to first-generation Greek-Americans. She lives in New York City and blogs here.
The Secrets They Kept
Publisher: Joanne Tombrakos (September 22, 2011)