Books & Literature

Book Review: Secrets My Father Kept, by Rachel Givney

HISTORICAL FICTION: Set in Poland on the brink of the Second World War, this is the gripping story of a young woman determined to uncover the truth behind her mother’s disappearance and the dark secret from her father’s past.

What. A. Twist.

Sydney-born writer and filmmaker Rachel Givney has a long list of impressive achievements to be proud of. Having worked on several acclaimed Australian TV shows—think McLeod’s Daughters and Offspring—and published the feel-good novel Jane in Love, which is set to be adapted to film, Givney clearly knows what it takes to engage an audience. Her skills are more obvious than ever in her latest novel, Secrets My Father Kept.

Set on the eve of the Second World War in Krakow, Poland, the story trails 17-year-old Marie. She lives alone with her father, Dr Dominik Karski, who refuses to reveal anything about Marie’s mother, other than that she left when Marie was an infant. When Marie finds a lock of women’s hair under her father’s bed, she begins to suspect that her mother didn’t really leave her. And if she did, it wasn’t willingly. 

The story takes a little longer to unravel than the title makes it seem, but it keeps the reader hooked all the way through. The emotionally stirring central plot revolves around Marie uncovering the identity and whereabouts of her mother. At times, the novel seems to lose focus of the end goal, but there are plenty of subplots in both Marie and Dominik’s journeys that stop the reader from losing interest. Givney writes in such a way that the reader feels as compelled as Marie herself to learn the truth.

With the rise of Nazism brewing in the background, racial discrimination naturally plays a large part in this story. In scenes that are hard to stomach, we witness some of the atrocities that were commonplace at the time as Marie falls in love with a Jewish man. The sexism of the era also echoes throughout the book, challenging Marie, the other female characters, and any reader who can relate to the feeling of being victimised due to their gender. As upsetting as it is to read about people being mocked, cheated, and even hurt under these circumstances, it does feel glorious to see them sometimes prevail over their tormentors. 

Some characters in the story are lovable, such as the kind Rabbi Katz who marries Marie to the love of her life, Ben Rosen. Some, like Dominik’s nemesis, Dr Wolanski, are despicable. And others, like Dominik himself, take a while to figure out. These well-fleshed personalities, together with emotive descriptions of the historical setting and trickles of clues scattered within the chapters, make the novel especially gripping. 

The highlight is undoubtedly the major twist that’s revealed near the end of the story. As far as surprises go, it has all the makings of a winner: it’s not obvious throughout the novel, but after the truth is revealed, you kick yourself for not picking it up sooner. While the twist is imaginative, it also ties in beautifully with the protagonist’s character arc. 

There are countless books out there set against a backdrop of World War II, and it’s difficult to stand out if you’re going to compete. Through a creative and well-researched plot that makes you long to know more, and complex characters that are easy to root for, Secrets My Father Kept well and truly earns its stripes.

Reviewed by Vanessa Elle
Instagram: @vanessaellewrites

Distributed by: Penguin Random House
Released: 1 June 2021
RRP: $32.99

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