Secrets, spies and a banned masterpiece in
The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott
Every once in a while a debut novel is published that instantly takes off, receiving outstanding reviews across the media and scoring impressive sales. Earlier this year there was The Binding by Bridget Collins, last year The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gower, both of which rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists. September 5th sees the publication of The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott; fascinating, seductive and cleverly constructed, this is a combination of literary history, spy story, and historical romance, all with a deep connection to Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago at its core. Already gathering impressive pre-publication acclaim, both in the UK and the US, where it has already been selected for Reese Witherspoon's bookclub, you can expect to see big things from this beguiling novel.
Here you can read a piece written exclusively for Foyles by Lara Prescott, where she explains her own background and what ignited her own profound interest in Pasternak's seminal work, and inspired her to write this soon-to-be breakout novel
Named After a Muse by Lara Prescott
I have my parents to thank for naming me after Boris Pasternak’s heroine Lara in Doctor Zhivago. As a child, knowing nothing about the book or movie, I’d wind up my mother’s musical jewelry box again and again to hear it play “Lara’s Theme.”
It wasn’t until I was a teenager—and I was deep into my new obsession for Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekhov, and all the Russian greats—that I read Zhivago for the first time. Back then, with Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in my mind’s eye, I was most interested in the tragic love story. On my next reading as a young adult, I was most taken with the beauty of Pasternak’s poetic sentences. On my recent readings, what struck me most are the ways in which Pasternak conveys the importance of free thought.
And in 1950s Soviet Russia, that was a subversive idea. At the time, Boris Pasternak was one of the most famous living Soviet writers. His readings would sell out to packed auditoriums. Fans would stand and shout lines from his poetry, unable to contain their excitement.
Doctor Zhivago was to be his first novel—and one the Kremlin knew people would want to read. And when they got word of Zhivago’s themes—as well as its critical depictions of the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War—the Soviet censors banned the book.
Meanwhile, in the United States, political leaders were looking for ways to demonstrate American superiority over the East. And what better way, thought the newly-formed CIA, than through art and literature?
To me, there is no greater way to create empathy than storytelling. Books allow us to experience others’ lives, visit other time periods, walk the streets of places we’ve never been. They build connection.
So it’s no surprise that governments—seeking to control how their citizens view and experience the world—have always used words as weapons. Today, tweets, bots, and fake news do the job; but during the Cold War, the Soviets and Americans used books.
I first learned about the Zhivago mission in 2014, after my father sent me a Washington Post article about newly declassified documents that shed light on the CIA’s Cold War-era “Books Program.” With my interested piqued, I devoured the incredible true story behind Zhivago’s publication. What I discovered was that the CIA had obtained the banned manuscript, covertly printed it, and smuggled it back into the USSR.
The first CIA memos on Zhivago described the book as “the most heretical literary work by a Soviet author since Stalin’s death,” saying it had “great propaganda value” for its “passive but piercing exposition of the effect of the Soviet system on the life of a sensitive, intelligent citizen.”
And it was seeing the actual memos and so many other declassified documents like them—with all their blacked-out and redacted names and details—that first inspired me to fill in the blanks with fiction.
The first voice that came to me was that of a group of fictionalized CIA typists working in the Agency’s Soviet Russia division. As I began writing, I imagined all the idealistic Ivy League men at the CIA working on the mission—and behind them, the women in the typing pool. They became a kind of Greek Chorus to drive the book’s narrative. And who else could be a better narrator? After all, these women typed the secrets of the secret keepers.
But as I dove deeper into my writing, I realized I was missing half the story.
I subscribe to the thought: “Read a hundred books, write one”—which was certainly part of my process. I pored over book after book about the Cold War, propaganda, CIA history, Russian history, and more.
Then, one book in particular caught my attention. A Captive of Time is the autobiography of Olga Ivinskaya, Boris Pasternak’s mistress and muse for his character Lara—my namesake. Ivinskaya also played a pivotal role in Pasternak’s writing process, and in helping bring Zhivago to the world. In fact, she was twice sentenced to hard labor in the Gulag for her involvement with him.
To me, Olga is so much more than a muse, and after reading her story, I knew that I couldn’t just tell my novel through the women in the West; there had to be an Eastern thread as well—told through Olga’s lens.
While most eyes gravitate toward the famous men in the spotlight, I’ve always been more intrigued by the women in the background. The Secrets We Kept is a vehicle to give these women a voice once more.
Lara Prescott was named after the heroine of Doctor Zhivago and first discovered the true story behind the novel after the CIA declassified 99 documents pertaining to its role in the book's publication and covert dissemination. She travelled the world - from Moscow and Washington, to London and Paris - in the course of her research, becoming particularly interested in political repression in both the Soviet Union and United States and how, during the Cold War, both countries used literature as a weapon. Lara earned her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, and The Secrets We Kept is her first novel