Tom Harper’s Book of Secrets, a Review (Part One)

(This post contains spoilers for Tom Harper’s Book of Secrets. You have been warned!)

I just finished Tom Harper’s Book of Secrets, which I enjoyed a good amount. I highly recommend the book to any printing / bookmaking geeks, it features an interesting (though mostly fictional) account of Gutenberg’s life and cross-cuts it with a modern-day mystery adventure through Europe. In this post, however, I’d like to talk about two aspects of the book that irked me, and that strike me as part of a larger pattern of contemporary historical mysteries. These are, the gender roles in the book and the persistence of a Da-Vinci-Code-esque imagery of Dark Secrets Held By The Church.

First, the gender roles. The protagonist is male, which remains the norm in the genre, a norm I dislike and do what I can to change. It’s not just the gender of the protagonist: the gender roles are pretty traditional, in a way that grates on me. There are two major characters in the contemporary plotline of the book who are women. Emily is the “positive” character who helps the protagonist. She is frequently passive (though occasionally awesome and competent) and gets sidelined towards the end of the book, even though, in some ways, her story is the more interesting one. Gillian is the “negative” character. She is an independent, strong woman who goes where she wants and does what she wants, but through the lens of the author and of the main character she appears “the wild woman, untamed and unknowable” – and her actions ultimately put her at odds with the party and the law. At the end of the book, she simply disappears, no longer a lover or a friend, but still an unsolved mystery.

The 15th century plotline in Secrets is even worse with respect to gender roles. Gutenberg himself is a major character, and homosexual; his homosexuality, however, is never anything more than a torment or a jealously guarded secret. I appreciate the fact that a gay man might find himself very much an outcast in 15th century Europe, but the Gutenberg sexuality arc features no progress until the resolution when Gutenberg claims he is cured of his “demon” by God after a particularly stressful night when he (temporarily) loses his friend Kaspar. This sort of statement makes me extremely uncomfortable. On its own, it is certainly possible for a person’s sexuality to change drastically after particularly stressful episodes. However, the way Harper chooses to portray Gutenberg’s sexuality has a very unpleasant “casting out the demon feel” that suggests (homo)sexuality is something that is at worst hidden deep and at best cured like a disease. Again, the social norms of Gutenberg’s time and place may have suggested a similar portrayal, but it is my experience that sexuality is an intensely personal matter. A character’s perception of their own sexuality may be tinged by the messages they get from social context, but it grows and changes as the character grows and changes, and (I would argue) never does it conform to any socially held view of sexuality.

This post has gotten a bit too long, so I will leave things here and talk about the Da Vinci Code and related matters in the next post!

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One Response to “Tom Harper’s Book of Secrets, a Review (Part One)”

  1. konto osobiste ranking mogilańskim Says:

    Τom Harpеrs Book of Secrets, a Review (Paart One)

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