If you go digging through my archives, you’ll notice that despite being a self-confessed book addict, I rarely write book reviews. That’s because I’m unfortunately more of a book collector than a voracious book reader. Of course, I have good intentions, and get carried away on the wings of fancy, but all too often the rubber doesn’t hit the road.
Anyway, today I’m breaking with tradition because I’ve just finished reading Mark Lamprell’s: The Secret Wife, and I’m too excited to keep it to myself. I absolutely loved it, and thought you might love it too. I rarely read non-fiction, and despite my best intentions, have often failed to finish even novels I love. So, the fact I was sticking matchsticks in my eyes to stay awake and finish this book, is a very strong endorsement. Indeed, to quote Australian music legend Molly Meldrum: “Do yourself a favour”, and read this book.
So, what was so good about it?
For me personally, I’m Australian and I enjoy stories from my own backyard, as well as reading foreign literature. Indeed, I suspect each of us likes to see our own world reflected back to us through the arts, as much as we also appreciate a more cosmopolitan diet. Yet, at the same time, it wasn’t consciously Australian and would easily translate elsewhere.
Secondly, I really appreciated the highly developed characterisation with his profound understanding of human nature. The storyline hinges on the friendship of two very different women, Edith and Frankie, their husbands and children and is mostly set in the 1960’s. Naturally, as characters in a novel, they go through many ups and downs, dramas, catastrophes and successes. Lacking in self-confidence myself too often, I related very strongly to Edith even though I’m a born extrovert and would’ve loved to be Frankie in my dreams.
I also really appreciated how Lamprell handled the interaction of this wily cast with the finely-tuned precision of a symphony conductor, yet with casual realism. There were times the characters became people I know, but I also felt Mark knew me like the back of his hand. I’m sure I got goose bumps more than once.
Another point I greatly appreciated about the book was Mark’s dynamic and complex vocabulary. Not all writers appreciate words, but I love words with a passion and am quick to take my hat off to those who make the effort (or even flourish). My kids have told me off for writing in books, but I always read books with a pen in hand, and my pen was very busy throughout (which is a great sign, btw.) I even jotted a few words in the back.
It is also worth noting that The Secret Wife is a historical novel. I was touched and impressed by Lamprell’s eye for detail and accuracy. It’s so easy to Google these things now, that there’s no excuse for getting them wrong. There is just enough detail to add flavour and authenticity, but not too much to bog you down.
All of that makes me sound intensely critical and punctilious (to steal a word from Mark). However, what we’re all looking for is a gripping story. A tale which draws us in and keeps throwing us bait until we’re caught hook, line and sinker. Where we can’t put the book down, yet we don’t want the book to end either. That is certainly true of The Secret Wife. The plot is also refreshingly unpredictable. He leads us up one path, and then we are taken somewhere else entirely, although not left alone lost in the dark either.
I know I’m saying a lot without saying much at all about this book. That’s because I know how much I hate spoilers. I just want a “yay” or a “nay”, and something to back it up. Yet, I’m busting to talk to someone about it.
However, I’m also into biography. So, once I like a book, or fancy an author, I want to delve into their head, their heart, their past, present…the works. (Indeed, I’ve been doing just that with author Ethel Turner over at my other blog Tea With Ethel Turner.) So this leaves me asking: “Who is Mark Lamprell?” and I suppose you might be wondering the same thing, and why I read: The Secret Wife, especially when I could’ve been reading your blog posts and works of fiction instead…
Well, the official answer is: “Mark Lamprell is an (Australian) writer of novels and children’s books published in sixteen countries and twelve languages, including the novels The Full Ridiculous and A Lover’s Guide to Rome. He also works internationally as a writer and director in film, with movie credits including Babe Pig in the City, My Mother Frank, Goddess, A Few Less Men and Never Too Late.“
There’s a more complex answer here, where Booktopia asked him Ten Terrifying Questions: https://www.booktopia.com.au/blog/2022/04/21/ten-terrifying-questions-with-mark-lamprell/?fbclid=IwAR10IScuXeqzO3eEluwWUtZb9ICn93sRAXkHBCS8JUqbAwLBQxZpsZ6Kwwk
However, for me, Mark Lamprell was also my uncle’s school friend. My dad was one of seven, and being the eldest grandchild, I was only ten and eleven years younger than my youngest uncles. So, it wasn’t unusual for me to be down at the house when their friends were around. Moreover, their house was a sprawling Californian bungalow. None of the doors were ever locked, and people simply came and went. Oftentimes, we’d be gathered around the kitchen table philosophising. One would be having breakfast, another lunch and someone else having a snack. It was definitely laissez-faire, although there were still non-negotiables like my grandfather wanting my uncle to get his hair cut.
Yet, as I’ve mentioned before, my grandmother was Eunice Gardiner, an international concert pianist, music critic and later professor piano at the NSW Conservatorium of Music. In the loungeroom, there was her Bechstein grand piano, and after my grandfather passed away, it was joined by a large concert-sized Steinway grand, which she’d brought out from England. Having two large grand pianos in your lounge room, certainly makes a statement.
So, the house had this sort of dichotomy, and that fits in very well with Frankie’s world in The Secret Wife. Moreover, like Frankie, there was so much we didn’t know about my grandmother’s career, and who she was. Indeed, I venture to suggest that everyone probably has their secrets. Things even our nearest and dearest know nothing about.
While The Secret Wife and I were obviously a very good fit, I ended up reading it because the publisher sent me a copy to review. I was attending a novel writing workshop with Graeme Simsion (author of The Rosie Project who I’ve reviewed before). I mentioned that I’d attended a similar workshop with Mark Lamprell at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, and the publicist said she’d send me a copy of his new book. I was delighted, and mentioned he was a family friend. The book duly arrived, and I thought I’d better read it tout de suite to honour the deal. No forgetting to read this book. By this time, I picked up an extra 38 “friends” at the Pearl Beach Book Sale. So, it wasn’t that The Secret Wife was without competition. I clearly needed to get reading.
However, reading The Secret Wife now was mind-blowing timing. A few weeks ago, I was contacted by historian, Ann Curthoys, who let me know that back in 1960 my grandmother had appeared on an ABC TV panel interviewing Paul Robeson, an African-American singer, actor and civil rights activist and soon of a former slave when he toured Australia in November 1960. The interview covered racism, equality and freedom and was recorded on the 5th November, 1960. Three days later, JF Kennedy defeated Nixon in the US presidential election, and it was broadcast on the 13th November, 1960. It was just under three years before Dr Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which followed a march by over 200,000 people on Washington on the 28th August, 1963. I was able to order a copy of the interview, and have been working on a transcript. I am gobsmacked.
So, reading: The Secret Wife which is set in this similar social context, was an incredible fusion. However, my grandmother was leading a different life to anyone really what with her prodigious talent and being married with seven children and still pursuing her career. But I think she just had this trajectory in her mind and it just kept going. She probably knew nothing else.
As for my grandfather, there was a miniature grand piano on their wedding cake. So, I doubt he had any illusions. My grandmother, her piano and her career were a package deal. There was never any suggestion she was going to stop.
Wow! There’s been so much to think about, and more to come. For now, I’m going to let the book settle. I really want to talk it over, and share it with someone (something I obviously can’t do in a review.) Maybe, I’ll start talking to myself.
PS One thing I didn’t mention was that my grandfather was the consummate book collector and my grandparents’ house was overflowing out the back and under the house with boxes, and boxes of books. Indeed, when my grandparents first got married, my grandfather’s mother sent over his books to their new home, and they apparently arrived even before the furniture.
Don’t you just love family stories?!!
Featured image: Geoff Newton. Thank you Zac the dog for posing for the camera. Since he spends much of his life sleeping underneath my keyboard and while I was reading the book, it seemed appropriate for him to appear in the photo.