Reviewed by April Line
Krystal A Sital’s Secrets We Kept: Three Women of Trinidad (W. W. Norton, 2018) reads like the best kind of novel: at once engrossing, vivid, rich in character, sound, taste, and smell. But the story is true. Sital collected her mother’s and grandmother’s memories and committed them, in all their horror and delight and romance and abuse, to these pages.
Generational love stories, moments of empowerment—as when Sital’s mother works full-time in the city, away from her family’s farm after completing her education—and Trinidad’s dialect draw readers irretrievably into a tale that is both beautiful and devastating.
Sital invites her readers into a twisted reality in which women, over generations, escape harsh physical and emotional abuse, poverty, and necessary, constant physical labor the only way they can—by marrying well. Sital’s grandmother, whose life bookends the narrative, lived with a tyrant who never married her—disgraceful in Trinidad at the time—and who repeatedly beat her to within millimeters of her life. But she explained, without regret, that she knew she could live a better life if she got a man with land, a house, and a car. And she did.
The lack of regret, the persistent loyalty to people who are cruel, even evil, because they are family is the most difficult thing about this book. In a time and place where separations and divorces between romantic partners are normal, minimally stigmatized by our culture, the powerlessness Trinidadian women have experienced for generations amplified. Their practical mental calculus—leaving means everything gets harder, people will not sell food, or will charge extra, to disgraced, divorced women—meant these women were trapped, no matter how dire their realities. No reason for leaving was appropriate.
And this blood bond is so acculturated that Sital’s mother and aunts and uncles forced their mother to care for her tyrant of a husband after they’d authorized brain surgeries that left him in need of constant care. Even though every one of them endured extreme physical violence at his hands.
Still, Secrets We Kept is a timely, beautiful book that illuminates misogyny, injustice, racism, and beauty in a land and culture that will be unfamiliar to most American readers. In the end, it is a hopeful tale, an effort to shed generations of secrecy, of victimization. This is essential reading in this cultural moment of nationalism, racism, and misogyny. Get this book and gift it to all of your friends. Do not keep these secrets or enable their keeping.