My sister and I moved my grandmother to a nursing home when she was 107. Clearing out her apartment, we stumbled on a box of old papers. A crumbling leather portfolio emerged, overflowing with love poems written in her assertive hand. Love poems? Nana was infamously unsentimental. Our grandfather had been the classic henpecked husband. We were pretty sure these weren't for him.
Despite the long years we spent with Nana, did we really know her? After all, most of us share only a fraction of ourselves with the world. Maybe that's why books about family secrets are so delicious.
Tomorrow by Graham Swift, paperback, 272 pages, Vintage, list price: $14.95
In the novel Tomorrow, by Graham Swift, Paula Hook stays up all night holding an imaginary conversation with her 16-year-old twins. She's compulsively worried about the news that her husband will tell them the next day. Even though Paula and her husband have agreed to the disclosure, she's terrified of her children's judgment, that the revelation will make them disparage her life choices. What's remarkable here is the author's exploration of her anxiety. More than the actual content of her secret, which today would be commonplace, is the way it's taken over her psyche. I had insomnia right along with her, hoping the truth wouldn't destroy her family.
Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, paperback, 247 pages, Picador, list price: $14
This same kind of dread infuses Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. In Gilead, Pastor Ames can't stand to hold his godson's secret. Here again, greater than the concealed information, is the pastor's tormented knowledge of it. He swings between contempt and fear for his godson, and fury at himself for failing to be more loving and tolerant. Even if I couldn't relate to the reason for the pastor's angst, I clung to his every word as he mapped his internal struggle. Pastor Ames' secret shakes the very foundations of his faith.
Fallen, by David Maine, paperback, 256 pages, St. Martin's Griffin, list price: $14.99
For the primal set of family secrets that test faith, try Genesis. Talk about skeletons in the closet. Consider telling your kids that you were the one who bit the apple, or that you murdered Abel. These are crimes that are actually worse than the cover-up. In Fallen, author David Maine brilliantly re-creates these Old Testament stories. The book runs backward, beginning with Cain on his death bed, through Adam and Eve freshly expelled from the Garden of Eden. We discover secrets that are literally of biblical proportion. I'm amazed at how riveted I was, even though I knew how it came out.
Is it the secret itself or the guilty knowledge of it that's consuming? So many books revolve around shameful concealments. But aren't there some secrets that mix a little sweet with the bitter? I hope my grandmother's did. Unfortunately, I won't find the answer in a book.
Martha Toll is seeking publication for two novels, one of which is about family secrets.