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The Secret Keeper is a Thriller That Offers a Harrowing Glimpse of War-Torn Sierra Leone

June 6, 2010

The Secret Keeper by Paul Harris
published by Dutton Adult, April 2, 2009

British journalist Danny Kellerman first arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone in 2000, where he was covering the civil war. He fell in love with Maria Tirado, an aid worker dedicated to rescuing children; this included guiding the drugged, dead-eyed child soldiers back into civilian life. Danny’s passionate affair with Maria came to an end when he returned to England, and she stayed to continue her work in Sierra Leone. Four years later, Danny gets a letter from Maria: “I need you. I’m in trouble.”

Before he can return to Africa, Danny learns Maria was murdered. Soon he is headed to Freetown, leaving behind his frustrated lover and his ailing, somewhat estranged father. Having convinced his newspaper editor to send him back to Sierra Leone to report on the nation’s recovery from civil war, he is determined to discover why Maria died and who is responsible.

On one level, this is a well crafted mystery. It smoothly shifts back and forth in time from 2000, when Danny traveled through war-torn Sierra Leone and spent time with Maria, and 2004, as he navigates the post-war government to unravel the truth behind her brutal murder. The action-filled plot glides quickly as Danny faces dangerous former soldiers and corrupt politicians, unsure whom to trust.

On another level, it’s a vivid, harrowing glimpse into the recent civil war in Sierra Leone and its aftermath. This author drew on his experience as a war correspondent in that tumultuous region to make the setting incredibly real. I could feel the African heat and see the city and the vivid landscape. Kellerman’s description of the region also touches on the lingering effects of European colonialism:

Gradually the car crawled out of Freetown’s lower suburbs where the poor masses lived and up into the foothills above the city. In the days of British rule many colonial officials had chosen these shaded slopes for their houses, high enough up in the mountains to catch a lucky breeze. The area had been given the name Hill Station, an echo of the Indian Raj that no doubt most of the officials posted to Sierra Leone had secretly longed for. After the British had left, the area had become home to Sierra Leone’s ruling class: whether Krio politicians, army generals, or Lebanese and Greek families.

This novel also probes profound ethical questions. Is it sometimes necessary — and morally right — to sacrifice the rights of individuals for the good of society as a whole? After a war in which many civilians were murdered, and children forced into military service, is it necessary to seek justice, ensuring that the perpetrators of atrocities don’t profit from the war? Or is it better to seek peace at all costs?

The Secret Keeper is also a story about enduring passion. While Danny is with Maria, it seems that he would do anything for her, including risking his life to help her rescue child soldiers. After he returns to England, despite his relationship with a live-in lover, he never really leaves Maria behind. His life is largely defined by frustration, loss, and heavy drinking. And he risks everything to learn the truth about her murder.

My only complaint about this novel is that I never felt their relationship was fully developed. I felt the intense sexual desire between them, though I wasn’t sure whether it was passion or their response to being caught in an intensely dangerous situation together. From the descriptions of their intimacy and snippets of conversation between them, I didn’t get a clear sense of their relationship. I can understand why this beautiful, intensely dedicated woman captivates him. But where is the love that haunts him for four years and prompts him to put aside everything in his life to solve her murder? That was the heart of the story, and it never fully came to life for me.

Nevertheless, this is an outstanding debut novel. It’s both a gripping mystery and a complex novel about love, loyalty, war, justice, and retribution. The author designed a well crafted plot, and he has a tremendous gift for vivid descriptive writing, drawing me so thoroughly into Sierra Leone that I will never forget the journey.

I also recommend A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah

Nod to the FTC: This book was sent to me by the author for review.

Read More Reviews: Maw Books; Peeking Between the Pages

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