I first heard about The Secrets We Kept in June last year. The book was initially titled We Were Never Here (perhaps that was too close to Jonathan Ames’ You Were Never Really Here, which became a major film in 2017 starring Joaquin Phoenix). The novel was creating quite a stir in publishing circles, major houses on both sides of the Atlantic were vying for the rights and the final deal was said to be worth $2M. Having read The Secrets We Kept I really see what all the fuss was about, this is an astonishingly accomplished debut: original, fiercely intelligent, pointedly witty, utterly thrilling and gripping. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this is an epic novel worthy of its topic – Dr. Zhivago and the CIA plot to publish the supposed subversive work in the USSR. The Secrets We Kept is an engrossing drama that works on so many levels. Part thriller, part love story, this reimagining of historical events is very convincing, fact and fictional creativity coalesce perfectly. The result is a beguiling read; the tragedy and iniquity of the story will drain you, but there are moments of joy and triumph too.

Here’s a flavour of the story:

East, 1949-1950. The men in black suits rifle her apartment before one calmly takes her arm and leads her to a car. To the Lubyanka, a yellow monolith that shrouds the city in grief and fear. Female warders strip and search Olga Ivinskaya. She is pregnant, this saves her some pain over the coming weeks but makes her vulnerable. The other prisoners feed her extra scraps, she is given a second blanket, not that there’s much sleep to be had – interrogations happen at night.

At her first interrogation, Olga protests her innocence. Anatoli Sergeyevich Semionov, call me Anatoli, smiles and reads the charge:

“Expressing anti-Soviet opinions of a terroristic nature.”

Then he asks:

“What is this Doctor Zhivago about?”

Olga Vsevolodovna Ivinskaya, mother of two young children, the pregnant lover of Boris Leonidovich Pasternak will not betray him. She clings to the memories of him, the married man she met at a book reading, the great Russian poet. Anatoli is not interested in their love affair, he wants Pasternak delivered, tied with a bow. Olga:

“Dr. Zhivago is not anti-Soviet”

But it is. Pasternak has renounced socialist realism, he is critical of the revolution. When Olga won’t talk they turn on her. The judge sentences her to five years in a re-education camp in Potma – a living hell.

West, fall of 1956. Irina rushes to her “Agency” interview/typing test. It’s not going well, a man bumps into her as she negotiates security, her handbag spills, her résumé is left crumpled. That was Dulles, Irina doesn’t know who that is. Irina’s mother has her own dress-making business, she is an émigré from Russia, Russia killed Olga’s father. Irina Drozdova is an American. She comes second to last in the typing test but two weeks later she is called back by Mr. Anderson for another interview. This time he wants to know about her father. The family were told that he died of a heart attack in a labour camp. Anderson tells her that her father really died during an interrogation in Moscow.

Irina gets the job, that first morning she meets Frank Wisner, the boss just below the big boss, it’s clear to the typing pool that she hasn’t been hired just for her typing skills. Eventually she comes under the wing of Sally, glamorous and worldly. America has lost round one of the space race, the Hungarian revolution has been crushed. The CIA is looking for a win. What follows is the story of the American plot, Boris Pasternak and Olga Ivinskaya’s love story, and the birth and early life of Doctor Zhivago.

Is The Secrets We Kept a thriller or just thrilling? Thriller is too limiting a definition, it would be unfortunate if readers were put off by that, this is contemporary literature. The thriller element is radical, not unique, but rare. Clearly Prescott did not want to conform to any recognised genre but she knows how to grip like a thriller. Women are at the heart of the story in The Secrets We Kept. The fictional American characters represent roles real women performed in the CIA and this story encourages us to think about the airbrushing of history. In a world of secrets, official accounts have overlooked the female contribution to the Cold War and the thriller has often bolstered that misconception. Prescott has also given a voice to Olga Ivinskaya, Boris Pasternak’s lover, the inspiration for Lara in his celebrated novel Doctor Zhivago. Pasternak, although hounded by the Soviet regime, never spent so much as one hour in a labour camp for his book, Olga spent several years there. The powerful, complex women at the centre of the novel give it an energy and drive that is exhilarating. History has to do more to redress the expunging of women from the narrative but fiction can help too, The Secrets We Kept does.

Politics on more than one level – this book will give readers an idea of the mind set of the Cold War, not just the East-West divide but the nuances in political beliefs in American society. The novel manages to skewer the psychology of the spy world, the pomposity and ludicrousness of the ‘game’. Again putting women at the heart of the story rather than the usual type of male characters makes the difference. The whole narrative is enjoyable, at times even playful, but there is always a serious intent underlying the way the story is told. Prescott develops themes in gender and sexual politics, highlighting the prejudice of the times (the glass ceiling in the basement), and the lack of desire to address discrimination or even recognise it. Prescott has taken a different slant to most novels involving espionage tales which do not take women or diverse sexuality seriously. This is a thriller that eschews the tropes in genre fiction in favour of something, much more real and grounded.

A powerful love story? Yes, and more than one for that matter, but let’s stick to Olga and Boris. The women here are not adjuncts, nor are they admired on a pedestal, this is a depiction of unromanticized love. Recognisable, flawed, shaky love – passionate, betraying and enduring love. Please don’t misunderstand this next bit, I think Pasternak is a great writer, a fine poet, and Dr Zhivago is an important novel but Lara is a romantic vision of a woman. She has something of Olga about her but that is mixed with a kind of rose tinted male adoration. By the time his character gets to David Lean’s film, played by the delicately beautiful Julie Christie, the romanticisation is well over egged. The Secret We Kept depicts the relationship between Pasternak and Olga in a very different way (of course, they are not the lovers of the book). Here we see the depiction of a real woman loved by a real man, and vice versa. Prescott’s Pasternak is a romantic but neither he nor Olga are blind to each other’s failings, their true nature. Prescott has created a compelling portrait of love in adversity.

History – You might be tempted to think that CIA operations had a very limited connection to post war cultural developments but nothing was beyond the remit of the Cold War conflict. From the 1950s through the ’60s the Central Intelligence Agency acting in secret, bought, promoted and encouraged American Abstract Expressionism by supporting artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Koonig and Mark Rothko (art generally despised in America and seen as unpatriotic and subversive). Why? To win the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, to demonstrate that American art trumps Soviet art. To promote the US notion of intellectual freedom, creativity and culture. Extraordinary but true* and so is the story behind this novel.

Lara Prescott was named after the heroine of Pasternak’s novel; it’s a book close to her heart, one she has reread several times. In 2014 the CIA released documents revealing the operation to smuggle Dr Zhivago into Russia (the CIA archive is available online for anyone interested in the detail). Pasternak and Olga had been unable to find a publisher in Russia. Prescott reveals the CIA thinking:

“The CIA wanting to show that art can only thrive in a free nation, knew it could cause unrest in the USSR by getting Pasternak’s work into the hands of Soviet citizens.” [Telegraph interview]

The CIA operation was real, the part of the story set in Russia a matter of record but Prescott very skilfully rounds it out with American characters and fictional lives that have that feel of the time and give a context to the story – a balance.

Women spies: the Cold War was real but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that much of what went on between the secret services was game playing, self-perpetuating role playing. In The Secrets We Kept an American spy meets a British spy for a trade, they could shake hands and do the deal, that hasn’t occurred to them, trade craft creeps in, things get complicated, it’s a rigmarole. Later in the novel Irina accepts a handover from a British spy. She wants to collect the package and go, he wants to banter, to play, to shroud their meeting in a kind of ceremony – Irina doesn’t see the point. I think that Prescott is making a point about boys with toys, in this case state security, the ridiculous danger of the secret show. This novel exposes the bombast and bluster of the male spying world. It shouldn’t be a game, this is life.

A stylish read: the novel alternates between the West and the East, balancing the progress of the story and creating a tension and sense of anticipation about the side of the story you are not currently reading. For part of the novel Olga tells her own story but one of the triumphs of The Secrets We Kept is the omniscient narrator who offers perspective, a wry, insightful independent voice, unifying the work, making the story come to life. Prescott has come up with a cast of characters who are never less than interesting and credible but in the case of Irina, Sally, Olga and Boris Pasternak they are fascinating. The writing is vivid and evocative, Prescott is a fine storyteller. There’s a filmic quality to the novel and the rights have already been sold, expect to see this one made into a film, it’s too good a story to miss.

When we meet the women of the typing pool in the prologue to the novel the narrator in a quiet rational but mildly angry tone describes the folly of CIA office politics and the unchallenging roles women are expected to fulfil. 100 wpm but they come from Vassar and Radcliffe, they are well educated, smart, experienced, some served in the OSS during WWII (black ops, resistance etc.). The work is mundane but better than other government jobs, some dream of becoming agents. It’s a waste of talent, these women work for Ivy League bosses with no experience who call them: ‘red’ and ‘tits’, one of the men is known as the ‘grabber’.

Olga and Boris – A lot of people reading this novel will judge Olga and find her wanting as a mother. It’s a misconception that Olga made a choice to leave her family because she won’t betray Pasternak. What we see of her character reveals her to be unable to do other. She is an incredibly brave woman, loyal, true to her own heart, Olga places her personal safety secondary to Pasternak and the book. She can only do what she can do. Two things strike me about Olga’s sacrifice; firstly, the world judges woman more harshly, secondly, systems punish women more harshly. Pasternak’s profile protected him, the pursuit of Olga was vindictive. Pasternak eventually makes his stand but he is weaker than Olga. Without her would his courage have sustained him? It’s fair question.

Block out a couple of days and treat yourself to a wonderful read.

*This is a well-established fact now, for an overview: Modern Art was CIA ‘Weapon’ by Frances Stonar Saunders (Independent 22/10/1995).

Spoilers – Pasternak died in 1960, shortly after Olga was sent back to a labour camp again for receiving foreign rights money for Dr Zhivago. The film followed in 1965.

Paul Burke
September 2019

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott
Hutchinson 9781786331663 hbk Sep 2019