A Book of Secrets

Written by Kate Morrison
Review by Margery Hookings

The central character of Susan Charlewood looms large in this impressive debut by a former journalist and press officer. The book was longlisted for the Mslexia Unpublished Novel Award in 2015, and it is obvious why the story grabbed the judges’ attention.

Susan is a resourceful and well-educated young black woman looking for her lost brother in Elizabethan London. Spies, plots and hidden Catholic printing presses become part and parcel of her extraordinary life. Taken as a baby from 16th-century Ghana, the high-born Susan arrives with her mother in rural Sussex, where she serves as a companion to the daughter of a wealthy Catholic household.

These were turbulent times when people risked imprisonment or death for their faith. Susan is an extraordinary woman whose quick wit, thirst for knowledge and determination equip her well for the perils ahead. When her mistress dies, she is married off to a London printer, whose secret work for the Catholic resistance places the whole household in danger. The sense of intrigue and secrecy is amplified by Susan’s feelings for the man who becomes her lover and then her enemy.

Morrison describes a living and breathing Elizabethan London as seen through the eyes of a unique character. Seldom does the reader come across a historical black character like Susan or experience a London like this: a stinking, crowded city in stark contrast to the rural idyll of her childhood. A Book of Secrets gives an urgent and exciting voice to a black woman in Elizabethan England at a time when slavery in England was not legally enforceable. Susan Charlewood is the kind of interesting and powerful character that merits another outing in a sequel, maybe, especially in these troubled times when racial divisions and modern slavery are a scourge on our society.