Shame and overcoming great obstacles are two of the major themes running through Ben Nuttall-Smith’s incredibly personal biographical novel Secrets Kept and Secrets Told. True, yet fictionalized, Nuttall-Smith tells the story of his life, and how the sexual abuse he endured as a boy shaped his future. The story is harrowing and a true testament to the resilience of the human spirit.
Secrets Kept, Secrets Told is the story of Patrick, who grew up in England during World War 2. Patrick and his sister Jennifer endure many hardships during the war, including strict boarding schools and the departure of their father. During the blitz, Patrick’s emotionally cold mother sends her young son and daughter to live with their Uncle Sigvard. Here, Patrick is sexually abused by Sigvard, who coerces him to keep their little secret. Patrick ultimately swallows back these dark memories into the shadowed layers of his subconscious. Dogged for the rest of his life by feelings of shame and unworthiness, Patrick struggles to find his place in the world. After he moves to Canada with his family to live with his mother’s unwelcoming new husband, Patrick contends with bullying and problems at school. As he grows up, Patrick’s career path spikes out in many directions, he joins the Navy, becomes a radio announcer, a camp counselor, joins a Christian brotherhood and later fulfills his life long dream of becoming a qualified teacher. The interludes of happiness Patrick finds throughout his life are like a quiet break from the storm that you know is raging just outside. When several events trigger posttraumatic stress disorder, Patrick is finally able to confront the abuse against him, and seek the help he needs for him to rebuild his sense of self.
Nuttall-Smith is an engaging writer and he works with language well (he is a poet in addition to a writer), and conjures up some beautiful imagery, particularly when describing his childhood. I was reminded of my own perspective as a child, and the certain magic ordinary things seemed to possess. However, there are portions of Secrets Kept, Secrets Told that feel awkward, particularly when Nuttall-Smith switches between narrative styles. The book usually reads as a fictional novel, however, Nuttall-Smith occasionally includes paragraphs that address the reader directly, in a more diary-like form. Although this tactic is sometimes successful, it is often jarring.
Pushing writing style aside, this is an incredibly brave novel. Nuttall-Smith let’s his audience into the most intimate aspects of his life and reveals his internal struggles. It would be interesting to find out what liberties Nuttall-Smith has taken in his story regarding characterization of the people around him, many of whom seem exceedingly harsh. However, this works to set a devastating picture of Patrick, desperate to please the people around him who will forever find him a disappointment. The story is deeply touching, and although it was frustrating to watch Patrick run from his problems, rather than stand his ground, Nuttall-Smith focuses on the positive aspects of Patrick’s struggles and his ultimate decision to no longer feel like a victim. It is invigorating when we see Patrick slowly start to shake off his chains. His struggle to find peace and fulfillment, and the desire to pursue his real passions is inspirational.
I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the effects of sexual abuse, or to those who want to witness a hard fought triumph over tragedy