Secrets by Bernard Maclaverty pivots on the theme of the immortality of letters, in both senses of the word. A parallel theme to this is the guilt complex from the formative years.
The story is rather simple and nothing new. A boy looks through some letters which his great aunt, a spinster, keeps as her secret. They are passionate love letters from a soldier who died in action. The boy gets found out and is cursed by the lady. She dies much later of old age and the letters get burned. The boy is remorseful of what he did.
Though the story is told from the third-person point of view, part of it is in an epistolary form which only helps to hide a lot, revealing only what is necessary. For example, though we know who the hapless aunt’s lover was, we actually don’t hear what happened to him. We don’t even get to hear the full content of the letters even though the narrator has read most of them fully. This becomes a metaphor for the mystery we call life.
The boy who represents a younger generation than that of the aunt does not see that he is more privileged when it comes to relationships and intimacy.
“He had just left his girlfriend’s home- they had been studying for ‘A’ levels together”
when he was asked to be present at his great aunt’s death bed. He is not at all happy to be there and tries his best to keep away from the dying person. From his memories of her, we see that she was a simple person outwardly even though from the choice of books he used to read out to him we find that she was a very passionate and strong person since all those stories depict strong women characters. Her most favourite was Pip’s meeting with Miss Havisham in The Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Far from a coincidence, Pip too gets slapped across his cheek by Miss Havisham in that scene.
The boy’s mother tells him after his aunt’s death that she kept to herself. This is absolutely true but intriguing. We are left to imagine whether the man in the photograph was the same man who wrote the letters, or whether both were dead or not. When she goes for a walk, she is very careful about her appearance, a behaviour we are not led to associate with her. All we are told through the letters is that she was passionately in love with a soldier named John. Benignus means an introverted soul, reserved and secretive, who tends to protect himself from a world that can make him feel a little uneasy at times.
Incidentally, the boy’s reading of the last letter is cut short when the lady returns. This might be symbolic of what happened to the man. The boy fails to sort things out just like his aunt who fails to put her own life in order. Her past is all the sweet privacy she has got in life and when boy trespasses into it, she is infuriated as if her only heaven is taken from her. On the other hand, the boy realizes the intensity of his own foul deed and after the aunt’s death cries begging for forgiveness.
The story incites curiosity in the reader too and so we are forced to pardon the boy for his own curiosity. We feel sorry for the lady even though we are not aware of what happened in her life. True to the title, the secretive nature of life is endorsed in this story.