‘Every family has its secrets’ starts the blurb. In Joanne Tombrakos’ self-published début novel The Secrets They Kept, she unravels those kept by the Poulous family, the vibrant and chaotic Greek-American family we follow through the story of Elena Poulous, a successful lawyer living in New York.
Solid and driven, Elena’s life is suddenly disrupted when she is informed of the death of Yannis Poulous. This is in itself is no big loss – she has never heard of him – but then she learns that he has listed her as his next of kin.
After discovering a box of letters in the Brooklyn apartment of this man who claimed to be her father, she starts to delve through layers of secrets that have been buried for decades.
Elena, the daughter and main protagonist, her mother Kristina and aunt Athena all take the lead in chapters from their point of view, the voices of the Greek women distinct and strong enough to not become confusing, but with enough Greek flavour to draw the story into a family saga.
Like many Mediterranean families (I can say this, I’m part of one) the Poulous’s are powerful women, fiercely proud of their families and their heritage, capable of fragility when this identity is threatened, and the multi-protagonist approach exposes the reader to both sides.
Although I never fell in love with Elena, I warmed to her enough to want to discover more, and the multiplicity of female perspectives means that the reader is certain to identify somewhere.
As well as rotating through the characters, the novel moves from the early fifties back in Greece, to the late 1990s in Manhattan, the movement in time being held together by a clear narrative thread.
This combination means that the reader is omniscient in one hand, all the perspectives and periods in their hands, but without knowing how to put the puzzle together, is compelled to keep reading.
Tombrakos is a business and life coach, and as Elena confronts her relationship with her mother, breaks down some of the boundaries with her boyfriend Matt, and questions the focus in her life, Tombrakos’ authorial voice can become a little directive and therapeutic, the reader too being prompted to explore their own frameworks for life.
At these moments, the sterility of the structure and syntax can dilute the warmth generated by the family. Overall, an engaging first novel, intelligent and in-depth. I’d be surprised if we do not hear more from Joanne Tombrakos.
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