“Secrets don’t keep, they putrefy.”
Two men know very well the truth of this statement. The first is Noel Leonard, whose job at the Defense Intelligence Analysis Center has him plotting precise points for the bombing of terrorist targets. When something goes wrong, and innocent children are killed at a school in Pakistan, he becomes weighted down with guilt. But he has no one to turn to because of the levels of secrecy involved, and it begins to take a toll, not just on Noel, but on his life. Up until now he’s always been able to separate work from home, but at a time in his life when he needs to tell someone, he's sworn to secrecy and silence. The other person in this book who kept secrets is a man who spent a lifetime uprooting his family in service to the government, ostensibly as a diplomat in the Foreign Service. His son, who narrates his story in first person, is a “geographic information scientist,” whose father had kept his share of secrets -- his father’s life and career are so shrouded in mystery that he knows very little about him. When he hears an enigmatic remark from an acquaintance of his father, he knows he needs to try to unearth what has been kept from him. He also wants to discover exactly how far the burden of these secrets might take him, and in the process, hope to locate himself. But it’s not going to be easy: he is denied access to info about his dad even though he’s applied through the Freedom of Information Act -- and he is left to sort through what bits of information he manages to obtain piecemeal.
Geography of Secrets speaks about finding connections and finding oneself. Aside from the two protagonists’ stories, the author uses the device of beginning each section with geographic coordinates to maintain this theme running throughout. The culture of government secrecy is also examined, as are blame and responsibility – not just on a personal level, but at the very top as well:
It takes surprisingly little time for things to drift down to these lower depths. The bigger the catastrophe, the more leadenly it falls as the larger vertebrates swimming overhead voraciously consume responsibility while spitting out little pebbles of blame.
The book is very well written and there is definitely a well-established sense of place, especially as the reader moves through the city of Washington, DC. I found myself heading to the internet to look up the places Reuss mentions there that were landmarks of the Cold War era. But it is not, I repeat, not a thriller, as I have seen it described in a few places -- it's a very intelligent piece of writing that looks at the burden of secrets and imposed silence on innocent people. It's also a look at what lengths people can go to just to share that burden. And although I found both of the main characters quite believable, I also found the narrator’s story a bit more intriguing than that of Noel’s, probably because of the gradual uncovering of his father's secrets which were revealed layer by layer. I will confess to being a bit disappointed at the rather vague ending, but overall, I definitely liked A Geography of Secrets and would recommend it.