Book Review: A Small Dark Quiet

A Small Dark Quiet, by Miranda Gold, is a tale of people damaged by war and grief, who leave a legacy of suffering in the families they raise. The dislocation of the characters and their resolute but often failed attempts to integrate in a structured society make this a challenging read.

The story opens in London, 1945, just a few weeks before the end of the Second World War. Sylvie has given birth to twin boys – Harry and Arthur – but only one has lived. The body of little Arthur was removed, disposed of before his mother could even hold him. In a country where many mothers will never again see their beloved children, where a city and its people have suffered so much loss and destruction, Sylvie is admonished – told she should be feeling grateful for her surviving child.

Sylvie had little time to get to know her husband, Gerald, before he went off to fight in the war. She had travelled to London for work and a new life, and been swept away by his courtship. With only brief periods of leave during the war years, Sylvie’s mother-in-law made pointed allusions to the legitimacy of the babies during her pregnancy.

Gerald’s father returned from his earlier war a broken man and eventually could no longer be cared for at home so was taken to live in an institution – an abiding source of shame for his son. Sylvie is warned by his wife to get over her grief and be sure to welcome Gerald back home with calm and open arms.

Gerald eventually returns, affected by the war but determined to hold his nerve and still his shaking hands. He is dismayed that his smiling wife has also changed. To cure Sylvie’s enduring grief at the loss of their baby he suggests they adopt one of the orphaned children from abroad being offered by the government as part of their post-war negotiations. The couple take in a boy who is the same age as Harry and rename him Arthur.

Sylvie is kind to this second Arthur who harbours buried memories of the violent deaths he witnessed in his first few years of life. She tells him stories of her little Arthur that affect him deeply. Gerald struggles to contain his impatience with this small, frightened boy who is so different from his brother. In fits of suppressed rage Gerald pours forth words that shape Arthur’s sense of worth and self.

The tale moves forward along several time frames in parallel. These include memories of the boys’ childhood and Sylvie’s gradual disintegration. Gerald tries to turn his sons into little soldiers whilst denying their Jewish heritage – he saw too plainly what can happen to practising Jews in times of conflict. As a teenager Arthur secretly explores the world of the synagogue. I was unsure what to make of this religious segment which felt unnecessarily prolonged given its importance in the wider plot progression.

Of more interest in these childhood chapters was how the boys were treated by Sylvie before she gave herself up to her enduring grief, and how Gerald struggled to cope with a family that did not match the standard he himself was working so hard to attain. These complex threads eventually coalesce to offer an empathetic portrayal of PTSD.

The later time frame details Arthur’s attempts to break away from the effects of Gerald’s bullying and make an independent life for himself. Arthur is thwarted by his inability to sustain the strength to apply himself to endeavours: college, a job, a relationship. He ends up being used by a young woman, Lydia, who is herself damaged. His acceptance of her behaviour was frustrating to read.

Arthur is shown kindness by his landlord and another tenant – a Polish survivor of the German camps. This latter thread was not developed as I expected.

The fragmented timeline is presented piecemeal. At times it was disorientating but mostly held together. The cast are presented as they appeared to Arthur rather than with much depth in themselves.

The writing is strong if somewhat distressing in places – the author does not baulk from her subject matter. There is little to like about many of the characters but they are shown to be victims of circumstance and upbringing. Not everyone will find the strength to rise above the trials they face. As such there is little uplifting amidst a series of devastating experiences for the reader to consider.

Those who prefer a tale to be completed with all threads tied and a denouement reached may finish this book and feel dissatisfied. The interweaving of numerous messy lives is portrayed with the inherited damage caused and there is no neat ending. Although dark the final take from the tale is empathetic. It is a powerful if somewhat fractured read.

A Small Dark Quiet is published by Unbound.

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Unravelling the Knot of Inherited Memory – Guest Post by Miranda Gold

I have visited two Memorial Sites to the Nazi death camps – Dachau and Sachsenhausen. Both had a profound impact on me. This is as it should be. If we are to learn from history, to prevent a repeat of such atrocities, we must both remember and reflect on how they were allowed to happen.

But what if memory damages the lives of not just those who experienced such evil but also their descendents? In her debut novel, Starlings (which I review here), my guest today, Miranda Gold, writes of a young woman whose life is stymied by her family’s struggle to cope with the effects of the Nazi holocaust. Although a work of fiction it is based on the author’s personal family history. In this guest post she shares with us how fact can inspire fiction, and how memory is often woven from both.

Please welcome to neverimitate, Miranda Gold.

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I was twelve that summer my parents took my brother and me to The Holocaust Memorial Museum. We didn’t need a prologue on the Amtrak from Boston to Washington D.C.; the narrative of my grandfather’s flight from Nazi Germany had underpinned our lives. Though ‘narrative’ is misleading – as though the story was singular and had a tidy, linear arc. Instead there were fragments that assembled themselves into a patchwork, something we’d only begin to see in retrospect, something I’m still trying to understand. I was given snatches sitting by my mother’s bed on the days when she wouldn’t get up – she’d ask me to stay with her, saying she was frightened of being alone. Or, some nights, a sudden burst about her father, the parents he’d left behind, a picture of the stripped bodies and the laughing SS engraved by her stop-start words. It was in the subtext of her threats, her cautions, always flickering beneath the surface like a lizard’s tongue. Yet we made our way to the Holocaust Memorial Museum as though it was just an item on an itinerary – though that should have been warning enough: we had never done itineraries before; holidays meant ice cream, squabbles and swimming costumes. This is what we expected and this is what we’d remember – and it would only be a few days before we’d be doing a relatively good impression of a family still in one piece. We’d get to Cape Cod and share a house with a couple who called each other bunny love and panda cub, who made their children silver dollar pancakes for breakfast and collected jingle shells. We played along for two weeks, never needing to be told what not to say. I always thought my mother behaved impeccably, her fears kept in check, her physical ailments joked off when they couldn’t quite be concealed. I wasn’t only grateful for the pretence, I slipped into it, and no one asked why my mother didn’t come along for bike ride and wouldn’t go in the sea, why we had to wait while my father disentangled himself from her attempts to keep him from coming downstairs – her stomach, her head – he couldn’t leave her, not now. The illusion didn’t crack until the mother of the other family pulled me aside to say, ‘Gee, I guess you’re mom is kinda sick,’ and squeezed my arm, ‘she gets kinda mad too, huh?’

Never forget goes the refrain. But what if the memories you have aren’t your own, handed down, told and retold like an inheritance that could never be spent? It was the silences that hung between the words that kept us listening, both anticipating and dreading what would come next – because something always did come next, it was never over; the telling remained compulsive because the story was never quite told, enclosing us in a terror that drew much of its force from remaining unknown. Perhaps it was this that made me feel, standing outside the Holocaust Memorial Museum under a perfect sky, that my head was being held under water. My mother would hear her father wake himself calling out for his parents; his nightmares became hers, hers became mine. Death never frightened me – but being caught did, it was the waiting that kept me up most nights, sure every sound was the Nazis coming for me. I dusted the nights off in the morning, put on my school uniform, tried to brush out the knots in my hair. Those nights didn’t lunge into daylight until we got to the museum in D.C. I felt the plunge in my stomach and knew I couldn’t go in – the atmosphere I’d grown up in dropped round me like a broken parachute.

My brother, then nine, went round with my father while my mother and I sat on the grass outside. I remember us laughing, her teaching me how to do different American accents – and that was the best version of her I’d ever met; just when we’d both come to the edge of our nightmares and closed our eyes she was suddenly alive. This must have been the woman people would tell me about after she died twenty years later, people whose words I would come to treasure and resent at once, conjuring a woman I’d had glimpses of but never known.

When I first began writing Starlings I did not consciously set out to transcribe my story or my family’s – if I had done, I have failed abysmally. Instead bits of my history crept up on me and on to the page, mixing with the characters I’d met parts of and arranged into being. The question ‘Is it autobiographical?’ seems to me to have little value. Novels, like dreams, play out variations of ourselves, our lives – I know I can’t hide any more than I know I can’t, caught up in my own subjective experience, write about my own experience without slipping into fiction. Tell the truth but tell it slant. Is there really any other way to tell it? The truth often is slant – we are all seeing it from different angles and what catches the light today is rarely what we saw. There is also the more fundamental matter of just getting by, of muddling through moment to moment and then, later, withstanding the threat of memory – both its power and its fragility. Human kind may not be able to bear very much reality – but sometimes our survival depends on our instinct to keep it at a remove. Even as I write this I question how much an inescapable element of self-consciousness makes me stray.

Starlings had perhaps already been written before I’d started it, but I couldn’t know that until I’d found a shape for it six years later. The stories I’d been told had become the backdrop to my life; one I couldn’t see I’d been woven into, only one I could feel as it began to unravel – it couldn’t hold together because the few facts I had were always shifting; the contours of reality continually redrawn like a country carved and re-carved after war. Only fiction seemed to offer a space that might circle the instability of hand-me-down memories, containing without erasing the paradoxes, holding the lacunae, to unlock another kind of truth. Not a truth that could be verified against sources, but one distilled from the fear kept alive from what had been left unsaid.

Spliced with silence, ever shifting, the stories I grew up with had an elusive quality that made their pulse relentless; if they had held still they might have become objects I could have set down. Words have been set down now, though, I hope, not definitively – Sally’s story is not mine, even if it might have grown out of it. Reading and writing can sound the echo of ourselves – but there is also the invitation to go beyond that. Where that’s located is different for each of us, but between the words written and the words read, the strange and the familiar become indistinguishable and that’s when fiction ‘truly’ starts to find its shape.

Starlings may have been written before I’d started it, but it was, nevertheless, a matter of making marks in the void, thinking I’d discovered new territory only to find it was already inhabited.

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Miranda Gold is a writer currently based in London. Before turning her focus to fiction, Miranda took the Soho Theatre Course for young writers, where her play, Lucky Deck, was selected for development and performance. Starlings is currently being adapted for the stage. She is now working on her second novel.

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Starlings will be published by Karnac Books on 1st December 2016

Book Review: Starlings

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Starlings, by Miranda Gold, is an intense and evocative journey through the mind of a troubled young woman haunted by her family history. Sally lives with her elderly parents in their home in London. Her mother has been ill for almost as long as Sally can remember, suffering from debilitating paranoia. She is cared for by her long suffering husband, a man who has had to put his wife’s needs before his own and their children’s. Sally’s grandparents, now dead, were Jews caught up in the holocaust of the Second World War. The lasting effects of the trauma they suffered left its imprint on Sally and her younger brother, Steven. Steven left home four years ago, escaping to Brighton without luggage or plans.

The story is set over a twenty-four hour period during which Sally visits Steven, an annual excursion fraught with emotion. The sibling’s relationship, although close and happy in childhood, is now shadowed. Sally is afraid that if she raises certain topics in conversation she will lose what is left of the brother she remembers and loves. She clings to those memories and longs for their closeness to return.

It took a few pages before I found the rhythm of the prose. It has a depth that demands concentration but the reward makes any effort worthwhile.

Growing up Sally did not comprehend much of what was happening around her and her brother as they played. They were offered “a palimpset of stories and silence”. Sally ponders how many of her memories are based on first hand knowledge, how much is accurate and what she has missed from the snippets shared or overheard.

The adults survived in a kind of denial caused by fear. Sally’s grandfather was hospitalised when his wife tried to burn off the camp numbers tattoo’d on his arm. The children watched as she wielded her cigarette, yet heard it talked of as an accident. When the truth was suggested the speaker was talked down.

Sally is often told that she has her grandfather’s eyes and understands that this causes her mother pain. Her inability to prevent this adds to the hurts which permeate the family.

Internalising so much from the generations before has left Sally unsure of how to function in company. She longs to spend time with her brother, to leave the never discussed difficulties and the soundtrack of her mother’s demands behind. When the reality of her trip to Brighton does not match the plans she had conjured in her head she recalls other visits dogged by disappointments which she blames on herself. Her mind overflows with comments and questions that she dare not voice for fear of Steven’s reaction. She tries to fathom what his life has become when her own, it seems, cannot move on.

I found the story challenging but deeply moving. It reveals an effect of the holocaust that I had not considered before. Having discovered that it is inspired by the author’s own family history I am impressed by its lack of rancour.

The disconnect between Sally and the more typical Brighton nightlife offers a poignant juxtaposition. She longs to repeat actions that formed her happier memories. Her travel bag contains little, yet she is burdened with thoughts almost too heavy to bear.

The poetic imagery and loneliness of the protagonist create a powerful voice. This is a beautifully written book that I recommend you read. It is a story that I will be contemplating for some time to come.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Karnac.