Saturday, May 02, 2009


Freetown, Sierra Leone is a haunted place for Danny Kellerman. He was sent to Freetown as a war correspondent in 2000—during the civil war—and it was the defining moment of his life, both professionally and personally. He met and fell in love with an American woman, Maria Tirado, who operated an orphanage for child soldiers, and realized a professional dream.

It is four years later and Danny is back in London. He lives with his current girlfriend, but his life has slipped into one of self-pity and loss. His job is unfulfilling and his personal relationships, specifically the relationship with his girlfriend and father are breaking down into sullen desperation. Danny is a haunted man. His past haunts him. Freetown haunts him, as does the loss of Maria.

Then one morning Danny receives a handwritten note from Maria. She is in trouble and asks Danny for help. She asks him to come to Freetown. He is stunned. It has been four years since they have spoken, now this. He decides to call her, but when he begins the search for a telephone number he finds an article about her death. She was murdered in Freetown three days earlier.

This plea for help prods Danny into action. He convinces his editor to send him to Sierra Leone to do a piece on the recovery of the nation after its civil war, but what he really wants is to investigate Maria’s murder. When he returns to Freetown he finds the place nearly unrecognizable. The two sides of the civil war share power, and while the economy is thriving, the past is a cloying danger no one wants to revisit, and there is a simmering anger and fear in the city. And no one, on either side, wants to investigate Maria’s murder: what’s done is done.

The Secret Keeper is a literary thriller that is stunning in its simplicity and power. The story is haunting and melancholy. It is told in two separate time lines. The first is in the year 2004 and it chronicles Danny’s search for answers to Maria’s death, and the second is his original trip to Sierra Leone in 2000 as a newspaper war correspondent.

The story and prose is saturated with regret and darkness. There is an overriding sense of fear and loss. Danny is a man who has defined himself by one moment of weakness—a weakness that did not seem like weakness when it occurred, but over the months and years that followed it has dragged Danny down with self-pity and, to a lesser extent, shame.

Freetown is captured perfectly as a city re-inventing itself on the ashes of its past. Its inhabitants know the past, but they do not discuss or want to remember it. The only thing worthy of contemplation is the future and the past will only harm that future. Danny is a remnant of Freetown’s darkest moments and his investigation represents a very real threat to the leadership of Sierra Leone. An issue that will threaten both Danny and the few friends he has in Freetown.

The Secret Keeper is a terrific novel. It is very much comparable to the work of Graham Greene, both in its thematic style and plot, but it is also a unique piece of fiction that captures the spirit and challenge of both Sierra Leone and the African continent—nothing is simple, the culture, the people, or the place. It is haunting, beautiful and ugly all at once. In a sense it is a snapshot of all humanity and the complexities that are inherent to modern civilization.

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