I enjoyed Renée Knight’s debut novel, Disclaimer, and have been looking forward to her follow up, The Secretary, since it’s publication last year.
Look around you. Who holds the most power in the room? Is it the one who speaks loudest, who looks the part, who has the most money, who commands the most respect?
Or perhaps it’s someone like Christine Butcher: a meek, overlooked figure, who silently bears witness as information is shared and secrets are whispered. Someone who quietly, perhaps even unwittingly, gathers together knowledge of the people she’s there to serve – the ones who don’t notice her, the ones who consider themselves to be important.
There’s a fine line between loyalty and obsession. And when someone like Christine Butcher is pushed to her limit, she might just become the most dangerous person in the room…
Christine is thrilled to be taken on as a personal assistant to Mina Appleton, heir to a chain of supermarkets that prides itself upon treating their suppliers fairly. Her role is a demanding one, and Christine throws herself into it with gusto – it’s a job that she loves and that she finds extremely satisfying, believing herself to be both useful and highly valued, nigh on irreplaceable. After all, who else could make things just so for her demanding boss? It’s clear that Christine is exceptionally proud of what she has achieved. It’s not a role that would appeal to everyone, but Christine loves the challenge of her work and the ever-changing requirements, and she takes a huge amount of pride in what she does. She’s not one to seek the limelight, and is quite happy working in the background to ensure that everything runs smoothly for her boss, beavering away almost without being noticed.
You are a small cog, but you are an important one
Christine’s devotion to her job and her boss, who does make unreasonable demands of her, does come at a price. Surprisingly, it’s one that Christine is willing to pay, as she gives everything to her job to the exclusion of all else. I did find it a little frustrating that she made the sacrifices that she did. She’s not always a likeable character, but her narrative is a compelling one, and I did still feel sympathetic towards her as she was clearly being coerced and manipulated at times. While this makes her sound the victim, which she is to an extent, Christine herself points out that she didn’t do anything unwillingly – her choices were her own, however she was “encouraged” at the time, and she could have walked away.
The novel is split into three sections. The first part shows Christine’s work for Mina, someone who she idolises, and her behaviour borders on sycophantic. The reader can see that there is more going on than Christine seems aware of or is prepared to admit, and the reader knows that things come to a head at some point as Christine narrates the story to us retrospectively. The full detail doesn’t come to light until the second part of the novel, in which we see Appleton’s brought to trial, and the reader (and Christine) begin to see exactly what was going on for all those years that Christine worked for Mina. The third part then deals with the aftermath of the trial, and went in a direction that I didn’t expect but was very satisfying to read.
The Secretary is a great read, and I liked seeing the story told from the perspective of someone who would go largely unnoticed in most novels.