Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Keeper of Secrets by Julie Thomas

First Line: "What does it mean when someone calls you swine?" Simon Horowitz asked suddenly, as his father's black Mercedes-Benz rolled to a stop at the top of a blind alley off the Friedrichstrasse.

Simon is about to find out exactly what that means, as his world rapidly descends into nightmare. Instead of learning to play his father's priceless and beloved 1742 Guarneri del Gesú violin, he and other members of his family are sent to Dachau, and the precious violin finds its way into other hands.

In the present day, a fourteen-year-old violin prodigy has a chance to make a name for himself on the world stage, and renowned conductor Rafael Gomez wants to help young Daniel Horowitz realize the dream. When Daniel rebels and refuses to play, Gomez is determined to do whatever it takes to make the boy play again. When the conductor learns that Daniel's family once owned an incredible violin, he thinks he has the answer: the story of what happened to the Horowitz family and their Guarneri del Gesú violin.

Although I've never been a real fan of the violin, I do enjoy stories about a house or an object that has survived through the centuries passing through various owners. The Keeper of Secrets is a welcome addition to this literary tradition.

The cast of characters is an interesting one. Simon Horowitz and his family react too slowly for most to survive the Holocaust. Simon has the character, the intelligence and the strength of will to do so, and he must use all of that in order to walk out of the infamous concentration camp known as Dachau. Daniel Horowitz, who has a once-in-a-lifetime talent, wants to be an ordinary boy who plays baseball with his friends. Daniel's mother is a woman who insists everything be sacrificed to Daniel's talent. The boy's father is a man who's torn between wanting his son to have a normal childhood and wanting his son to use his gift to its full potential. Rafael Gomez  is a man whose love of music has ruled his life, and he wants Daniel to be a sort of gift to the profession he loves.

All these characters blend together very well within the author's framework. Germany in the 1930s came to life as I read; the burgeoning power of the Nazis, the people who saw what was happening and got out, those who refused to see and stayed. Two elements in particular impressed me. One was the inclusion of various German characters who helped those being persecuted in whatever ways they could. The second was the fact that the chapters of the book involving Simon's internment in Dachau were horrible without being graphic. Thomas didn't candy coat anything, but she didn't feel the need to bury readers in the details of all the atrocities.

Perhaps music was the most profound element of The Keeper of Secrets, and I'm not just talking about learning the business aspects behind world-class orchestras. I've never read another book that made me feel even the tiniest bit like a gifted musician would feel as he played, what a piece of music can tell him, and how different instruments playing the same piece of music can sound differently. Somehow Thomas managed to convey all that and more.

The power of good characterization, of a good story, and of music combined to make Julie Thomas's book a virtuoso performance.

The Keeper of Secrets by Julie Thomas
ISBN: 9780062240309
William Morrow © 2013
Paperback, 384 pages

Fiction, Standalone
Rating: A
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers program 


  1. Cathy - This sounds like a compelling story. What an innovative idea to have that violin and the music be part of the thread that ties the two stories together. And it takes talent to honestly depict what happened in Dachau and other places like that without being too graphic. I don't often wander too far outside crime fiction, but this one sounds like it's worth the trip.

  2. Good for you that you read this and give it an "A." I can't read books about WWII because of the horrors.

    One thing I'm glad to see is the mention of Germans who helped people; I think there were a lot more than we know, although many people were too terrified or intimidated to do so and many did what they were told to do.

    Binnie Kirschenbaum in her book "Hester among the Ruins" wrote of people in a major city who'd run down a side street to avoid having to give a Nazi salute.

    Also, the New York Times a few years ago wrote of 800,000 political prisoners in German jails. I like to think of the many who stood up rather than those who didn't.

    The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach is a current legal mystery that goes back to WWII. It's crisp and to the point ... stunning, not surprising.

    1. Kathy, I think you're right in thinking that more Germans stood up to the Nazis than we'll ever know.

  3. I'm glad to see you really liked it because I have it set aside to read soon. I read The Violin of Auschwitz and didn't like it much, and this one sound much, much better.

    1. I normally don't read much fiction that has anything to do with the Holocaust, but I found this to be very well done.


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