“If music be the food of love …”: Julie Thomas’s The Keeper of Secrets

by Myfanwy Cook

The Keeper of Secrets

The Keeper of Secrets

What gives Julie Thomas’s first novel, The Keeper of Secrets, its global appeal?

The opening words of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night might at first appear to have little in common with Julie Thomas’s debut novel. However, Thomas’s novel, which is set partly in Germany during the Second World War, but also in present-day America, is in fact all about  the love of music – in particular the captivating sounds that a 1742 Guarneri del Gesú violin can produce in the hands of a talented musician, such as fourteen-year-old  Simon Horowitz.

Described as “a novel of love, loss and survival,” The Keeper of Secrets was first published by Thomas, who is a New Zealand native, as an e-book. It became a best-seller, and has recently appeared as a paperback. Central to this well-researched story is the Horowitz family, but also the violin, which is described as “welcoming and eager to share the music.” When Simon is sent to Dachau, the violin is lost to the Horowitz family, passing through the possession of Nazis and eventually into the hands of a Russian billionaire. Simon’s grandson, Daniel, is a virtuoso with a violin, but it takes a Spanish orchestra conductor to help him kindle his passion for music and recover the violin that has been lost to his family for decades.

Sometimes when we read a novel, we can feel the author’s passion for the subject seeping through the pages. This is certainly true of The Keeper of Secrets, which features a cast of engaging characters, including the conductor, Rafael Gomez, as well as evocative descriptions: from the scent of varnish and beeswax in a Berlin music shop to the intense cold and hunger experienced by the inmates of Dachau. It is also a novel about overcoming hardship, and perhaps because the author was born with a congenital heart defect which required her to spend the first four years of her life in bed, she has been able to offer the reader a passport into a world rich with emotion and human compassion. This emotional balance provides the reader with several poignant scenes, including those set in Dachau, and paints a sympathetic portrait of characters such as SS-Untersturmführer Kurt Walder, and the Russian billionaire, Sergei, who grew up under the Stalinist regime.

The characters are all finely drawn, but in particular the personalities of both Simon and Daniel Horowitz stand out. This is quite simply because Thomas has been able to capture the stubbornness of youth, and the sense of justice and fairness that are of such importance to young adults. She has also placed them in challenging situations that range from dealing with a “pushy” mother to battling for survival as a Jew in wartime Germany.

Describing a novel in terms of plot, especially when it is a complex one embracing the lives of protagonists in very different countries, is difficult. However, Thomas has managed to weave the strands of her story seamlessly, and in a way that is easy for the reader to follow.

Thomas explains that what inspired her to write the novel was that she “read a magazine article about looted musical instruments in WW2 and a missing 1742 del Gesú violin; music is one of my passions, so it inspired me to research the topic further. My sister-in-law was a Gesú  music teacher and my nephew was a brilliant violinist as a child. These threads came together to inspire the basis of the story, and it grew the more I researched the topic.”

Readers who enjoy Thomas’s debut novel will be pleased to know that she has started on a new work, and that, Thomas notes, “it is well underway! No, it doesn’t have a musical theme, but it does have some similarities to The Keeper of Secrets. It is about an Italian war bride, who married a New Zealand spitfire pilot and came to New Zealand in 1945. It’s a family saga, across generations, set in modern-day New Zealand and WW2 Italy, and is about how we hide the truth from the people we love.”

The Keeper of Secrets is published by William Morrow, 2013, ISBN 9780062240309.

For further information see: www.http://www.turnaround-uk.com/keeper-secrets-3 and http://www.harpercollins.com/book/index.aspx?isbn=9780062240309.

About the contributor: MYFANWY COOK is a member of the HNR editorial team and is author of Historical Fiction Writing – A Practical Guide and Toolkit.

Posted by Bethany Latham


  1. Bronwen Jones
    September 26, 2013

    A very helpful review, Myfanwy. The Keeper of Secrets is a lovely story, and down here we’re all very proud of Julie Thomas.