You have almost certainly seen him — if not on TV, then on YouTube or social media. His eponymous BBC celebrity talk show has won BAFTA’s. Adoring fans distribute his clips far and wide, both in the UK and around the world.
What you may not know about the host of The Graham Norton Show, however, is that he’s also an accomplished writer of memoirs and fiction. Following 2016’s Holding (Atria Books) comes another novel set in Mr. Norton’s tea-filled homeland of Ireland entitled A Keeper (Atria Books). Despite the good-natured frivolity of his television program, this story contains very few jolly moments.
The novel follows Elizabeth, a middle-aged English professor at Hunter College in New York City, as she seeks to uncover the myriad mysteries of her past following the death of her mother, Patricia. As the narrative alternates between Then and Now, the tales of Patricia and Elizabeth respectively unfold, overlapping currents of past and present, two women seeking the freedom and solace only truth can provide.
Carefully and strategically, Mr. Norton reveals shafts of light through the opaque clouds, discoveries to both reader and protagonists alike. These disclosures intimate a growing realization that far more lies beneath the veneer of an otherwise simple country Irish home than meets the eye.
The book does not require much intellectual rigor, though it may keep you up late into the night, as desperate for answers as our two hapless heroines. That A Keeper does not fit alongside current highbrow literary fiction will hopefully not seem a pejorative, but rather a classification. Indeed, Mr. Norton keeps us taut in suspense until nearly the final pages in what is a highly entertaining read.
Though it is quite an enjoyable mystery replete with Irish colloquialisms (such as the mouth-filling gormless, which means “stupid or dull”), in this writer’s opinion the book does occasionally fall short on two — admittedly minor — considerations. By and large, the book has us right where it wants us and does an excellent job of keeping (pun intended) us right there. We’re fish on the line with no chance of letting go.
That said, my first grievance relates to a number of truths that come by way of desultory (if not dismissive) conversational asides. Since the novel mostly does such a fine job of tracking two storylines side-by-side, deftly marshaling the clouded truth at just the right moment, these rare instances of nonchalance ring especially hollow by comparison.
Secondly, the writing, while engaging and employing a strong voice, swings and misses at times in the metaphorical game. Some of Mr. Norton’s similes strike the target emphatically, creating a far more lucid image in the reader’s mind. At the same time, I found a handful to be just as equally lacking for their luster.
In one particularly flat sentence, Mr. Norton writes, “Stories swapped across a cup-filled table, like serves being returned in tennis.” The utilization of such a tired metaphor does the novel no favors, especially when it is otherwise well-written.
On the other hand, consider this passage, exceptionally apropos given the content:
Memories don’t just vanish, they hide. Like a tiny boat trapped in heavy seas trying to catch sight of the shore, sometimes glimpses of the past appear. But some days the wind drops, the clouds part and there is a clear uninterrupted view of land.
Such writing elevates the text beyond a paperback thriller into something else. Here, and in other striking passages, Mr. Norton gives the reader a chance to search within themselves.
For are not many great mysteries questions of self or knowledge? Indeed, of self-knowledge? Mysterious trees grow from deep epistemological roots (for proof of this, read anything by Agatha Christie).
The moments Mr. Norton sinks his teeth in a bit reveal a thorough and thoughtful writer and we, as readers, come out all the better for it. We follow along with his leading women, foraging about for keys to unlock doors of imprisonment, in whatever form these may arrive.
In this way, the story becomes a metaphor for a much wider social or political stance. Without implying that Mr. Norton intended such an interpretation, there does exist a strong resemblance between the women of this novel and the state of women and girls today in what ought to be a thoroughly feminist society. Instead, doors remain locked in most every direction; women’s lives and bodies are taken from them without question; and the reassuring ground of the shoreline often appears very far off indeed.
In sum, A Keeper is precisely that, a keeper. For fans of Graham Norton’s show, you may be disappointed at the lack of celebrity gossip or humor (though there is a touch of the latter in parts). However, if you count yourself among those who delight in mystery or thriller, stories with dark family secrets, or novels set on dreary Irish coasts, then you’re certainly in for a real treat.