By Gill Paul
Harper Collins Publishing UK 2016
One of the mantras of writing classes is that a story should have a singular topic. “What is this about?” some critique partners cry when faced with a manuscript that struggles to identify its theme.
So when I read on the cover of the Secret Wife that this novel was about the love affair of army captain Dmitri Malama and Grand Duchess Tatiana, a daughter of Nicholas II, last Tsar of Russia, and was also about Dmitri’s great-grand- daughter and a crisis in her marriage, I worried a
I needn’t have. British writer Gill Paul blends these threads together well. If the beginning of the book, an unexpected legacy bequeathed to a protagonist by an unknown great-grandfather, is somewhat clichéd, this story moves quickly to become quite original. A contemporary narrator, Kitty, furious by the discovery of her husband’s infidelity, flies to upstate New York to consider what to do next. She’s learned she’s the sole beneficiary of her great-grandfather’s estate and uncovers, literally, his cabin by a lake. Her ancestor was a Russian immigrant and also, she learns, a writer. The second thread of the book is narrated by Dmitri Malama, a Russian nobleman and army officer. Wounded in World War I, he is nursed by Tatiana, the Tsar’s daughter. By 1914, the chaos of war had led the sheltered royal princesses to help in the bloody field hospitals. Despite this, they were imprisoned in 1917 and murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. That’s not a spoiler, it is history. Gill Paul heard that Tatiana had fallen in love with one of her patients, Malama. Her book is a fictionalized version of their relationship.
By the end of the book this reader had deep sympathy for the Romanovs, blinded by their own belief in the divine right of kings to the dire situation of their subjects, and a more nuanced understanding of the book’s contemporary narrator, Kitty. Human frailty, the impossibility for people always to do the right thing or to foresee consequences, and the possibility of enduring love are the underlying themes of both parts of this book. I found it a page-turner. Paul’s descriptions of the royal family’s captivity, the horrors of war, and more benignly, the pleasures of restoring an old cabin by the lake are very well done.
The book makes a timely appearance since next year marks one hundred years since the
Romanovs’ were killed and the Soviet era began.