This is a heartfelt and sad book, with a complex structure and a story that almost slips away. The fact that it maintains the reader’s interest is a sign of the expressive writing that Gold seems to specialise in throughout this book. The characters all have a background which echoes and reverberates in every aspect of their lives, where nothing is straightforward and everything is fluid. Atmospheric and clever, this book has its own unusual rhythm and pace, as it moves back and forwards in post war Britain, as the relationships and expectations of the protagonists change and deepen. I was interested to be sent a copy of this book to review.
The book opens with a woman, Sylvie, having given birth to the healthy baby Harry, but having lost another son, Arthur. The date, being March 1945 and the place being London means that the atmosphere is strained, as only Mrs. Cohen, a neighbour, is present to help. The loss of Arthur leaves Sylvie in despair, and she flees to a local park. Her actual actions are unclear, but it seems that she makes a model of a baby and buries it. The construction of the novel means that we only learn of this through hints and later incidents, as we also encounter her husband Gerald, a soldier whose own father is sometimes mentioned. Another boy appears in the household, given the same birthdate and the same name as the lost son. While not immediately announced, he appears to be an orphaned Jewish boy with tragic history in Hitler’s Europe. This has repercussions for his life, as he finds himself drawn to a synagogue despite his father’s antagonism. Sylvie withdraws from activities, Gerald seeks to enforce his ambitions on the family, while only Harry maintains a semblance of ordinary behaviour. Arthur’s adult life seems hopelessly compromised by his childhood and adolescence, and his behaviour and encounters difficult. The chronological arrangement of the book takes some following, as it moves between the decades, showing the adult Arthur in the context of various childhood experiences.
This book has a mature and ambitious structure, as suits the subject matter of fleeting impressions, memories and emotions. Gold gives us a non – linear story of a family which therefore represents the links between memory and current behaviour, what shapes people into their adult and later lives. It is a challenging book to read, but gives a strong impression of how loss leaves a gap that cannot be easily filled – if filled at all- and the effects of the attempt on real people. Sylvie’s lasting grief is an ever present force. Arthur’s confusion and half memories shapes how he reacts to Sylvie and his later relationship. The ongoing question of identity runs throughout this book, for without a grasp of self identity it will be impossible to move on happily. This is a book which asks many questions, demonstrates the lasting effects of grief, and establishes the difficulties of post war Britain. It will linger in the mind for some time.
In other news, Candlemas has come and gone. Just a little party in our house last night for over twenty people; happily food was brought as well as our offering. It turns out that it is quite difficult to find party food in February, especially when your freezer is full so you cannot buy frozen bags of sausage rolls etc. Still, I think everyone has sufficient, and there were even leftovers….