Literature Review: The Secret Box

Līga Horgana is back with another literature review, this time a compilation of short stories by Daina Tabūna translated into English. 

Image Credit: The Emma Press

The Secret Box, a compilation of three short stories written by Daina Tabūna, translated by Jayde Will and illustrated by Mark Andrew Webber, was published in 2017 in the UK by The Emma Press. The book is about girls and their way through the process of growing up. According to Tabūna, it is important to write about women because literature and cinema are still dominated by stories about men.[1] Feminist ideas prevail throughout this book.

While the first story "Deals with God" tells about an eight-year-old girl who slowly builds a  relationship with Jesus and tries to live according to his teachings in a quite non-religious family and society in general, the two others focus more on the differences between men and women and their relationships. My favorite one, called "The Secret Box," was about two siblings: a brother and a younger sister who had absolutely nothing in common, representing society's expectations for boys and girls.

"To be honest, I hadn’t had anything in common with Edgars for a long time. I don’t remember us making any little conspiratorial plans or getting up to any mischief together until that secret box of ours. A few times Edgars had tried, in a rather brutal way, to get me involved in his games, especially before he started school and got to know the boys from the neighbouring apartment blocks. But I was afraid of climbing trees, balls, throwing and catching things, water, fire, bugs, blood, dirty hands, even swings and bikes."[2]

However, despite their differences, they build a close relationship by creating their own game with dolls that still has to be kept in secret — first of all, because they are already teenagers who are not meant to be playing, and second of all they have to adhere to their gender roles so a boy cannot do such girly things and get away with that. The last story, called "The Spleen, My Favorite Organ," is about a university student who builds a relationship with a man in order to escape some hollowness in her own life.

The stories don’t seek to solve any existential questions or show some big, great characters. They tell about simple life and small decisions made by people who do not have a captivity to change a lot. The author says, “I was interested in writing about the small moments of breakthrough — that may seem like small events from the side, but they serve as important turning events in their personal biographies. It may be stepping off a tram at a station where you've never been, throwing away your childhood toys or making a long delayed phone call.”[3] For me it left a very personal impression. At some points it almost felt like reading someone’s diary. Little secrets, uncertainty and doubts that are not meant to be known by others. Nothing big, nothing dramatic but very intimate.

Another thing I could mention in speaking about this book is the voice of the main characters. They all are different girls at different ages and with different family backgrounds, but I agree with all those other readers who have claimed that the impression left after reading the stories is that it seems to be the same girl at various stages of her life. For me personally, it took quite a while to accept that the girl in "The Secret Box" is not the same one as in "Deals with God," although it was quite obvious already from the very first paragraphs. They both seemed to have a very similar worldview and a way of telling the story. I don’t want to make conclusions about whether it is good or bad, but for me as a person who is usually not a fan of short stories, it made it easier to read the book because when starting a new story I was already able to assume that I knew the main character from the previous one. For other readers, however, I can imagine that this could be boring.

For those of you who can read in Latvian, I would suggest reading the book Pirmā reize (The First Time) by Daina Tabūna. It is the author’s first book, and was published in 2014. It got nominated for the Annual Latvian Literary Award for the best debut. This Latvian editions includes not only the three stories that I already have mentioned, but also four more short stories that conceptually focus on young women. The book develops the idea of the difficult process of growing up, showing how the ideals of youth are crushed by facing adult life and accepting that a normal job, family life and daily routine are good and advisable parts of the life. Or maybe it leaves the question open about whether it is really worth leaving behind the bohemian or wandering around the world in order to have a normal life?

In any case, either edition of Daina Tabūna’s book will be good literature for those who are not looking for dramatic plots and heroes but are willing to enjoy some ordinary everyday situations, maybe to recall some younger years or identify with their own current life reality.

The Secret Box is available from The Emma Press here.

[1] LaLiGaBa 2014, Satori Sarunas
[2] Tabūna Daina. (2017). The Secret Box (pp. 32). (J. T. Will, Trans.). Birmingham, UK: The Emma Press..
[3] Veips, L. (2017, November 16). Interview: Daina Tabūna, writer. Retrieved from

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