A Geography of Secrets, by Frederick Reuss is a thought-provoking novel exploring a world that most of us know is in existence, but to which we give little thought. An unnamed narrator, a mapmaker whose father worked in foreign service. A careless comment heard at his father’s funeral leads him on a search for clues to the truth of his father’s identity and the secrets that he may have held. Then we have Noel Leonard. Noel works in a covert government office determining bomb coordinates for airstrikes, among other things. When a set of coordinates result in the destruction of a school in Afghanistan, Noel is deeply affected, causing his already fragile home life to begin unraveling at an astonishing rate.
This was a difficult novel for me to get into at first, mostly because of its construction and my own biases as a reader, but I am glad that I persevered for the perspective that it offered. The initial barrier that I had was the confusion in following an unnamed first person narrator and the myriad people with whom he was interacting, and then jumping to the third person narrative of the very detached Noel. It took me a minute to get my bearings and figure out that they were indeed different people, both searching, though looking for the answers to different questions. Noel is trying to find out whether he can have a place in his community and with his family when the secrets that he has kept over lifetime are a liability to his humanity and ability to relate, especially in the wake of the school bombing. The unnamed narrator is determined to figure out his father’s secrets that so affected the lives of he and his mother, who still holds bitterness feelings over the failure of her marriage.
Ruess’ novel is very well written and focuses on the high price of carrying burdens that cannot be shared. The world that he builds of government agencies and covert operations is convincing and filled with authentic acronyms and relevant jargon. Ruess excels in revealing the interior lives of these men, the unraveling of Noel’s marriage, his tentative efforts toward building deeper faith, and the unnamed narrator’s relationship with his mother are detailed and painful to experience at times. I cringed at the way Noel handled his marriage, but I understood the roots of clumsiness and hesitancy as well. The anwers that these men find in the search for their own truths are not easy, but definitely provide a lot to mull over regarding how much we can ever really know those who inhabit our lives.
Those who have been looking for for more depth in novels exploring the world of covert government service and the interior lives of difficult men, will find a lot to enjoy in A Geography of Secrets.
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