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.

Book Review: Everlasting Lane

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Everlasting Lane, by Andrew Lovett, explores the effects of trauma on both the present and memory. Told from the point of view of ten year old Peter Lambert, who moves with his mother to a cottage on Everlasting Lane in the village of Amberley following the death of his father, it is a poignant tale of the difficulty of communication and lack of understanding between children and adults. It is about choices and their consequences, of the dangers of secrets and what reality means to each individual.

On his first day in his new surroundings Peter meets Anna-Marie, a slightly older girl who appears to spurn authority. Anna-Marie possesses a curiosity apparently lacking in Peter. The boy lives for the moment, conjuring from his surroundings imaginary worlds that he weaves into his games. What may appear obvious to adults, there in plain sight, he ignores fearing what he may learn and have to face.

Set in the mid 1970s the village harbours damaged survivors from the Second World War attempting to cope with their experiences amidst the disparagement of those who do not understand why they act as they do. It also has a sadistic headmistress whose religious vehemence borders on the deranged. Other than inciting fear, the eccentricities of these adults are accepted by the children. Adults, after all, rarely act in ways that children can reason with. Words that are understood by both are hard to find; deeds are done to the young over which they exert scant control.

Anna-Marie introduces Peter to a classmate, Tommie, and the three form a fractious friendship group with the girl as their leader. They wander the village exploring places where they often shouldn’t be. When Peter mentions that there is a room in his cottage which his mother keeps locked and has never talked of, the trio set out to discover what it contains.

Their findings offer up a mystery to be solved. Anna-Marie uses this as a distraction from her own fears of impending secondary school little realising the effect their discoveries will have on Peter, who himself lives unaware of the traumas in his friends’ lives.

Although childhood contains the innocence of a lack of wider knowledge and understanding there is little serene about living with the cruelties and constant oneupmanship of peers and the frustrations of rules imposed by the plethora of micromanaging adults. This world is brilliantly, painfully evoked. Peter’s mother is doing her best but has her own demons to face. Neither can effectively communicate to the other how they feel.

“he was talking like he thought things that weren’t real weren’t as important as things that were. […] But I think they’re wrong in a way because there was a lot of stuff in my head that wasn’t real but was really important: like the things I wanted to happen or the things I wished had happened instead of the things that had.”

Peter is living with the consequences of actions that set off chains of events affecting the people he relied on for love. The story is told as a simple childhood mystery yet it contains layers of emotion. The writing is subtle yet devastating in its perceptiveness.

Whilst empathising with each of the main characters I could see no way around the dilemmas they faced. Peter was urged to focus on what was important, but those urging could only comprehend what seemed important to them.

The story got under my skin. It is distressing in places yet woven together with skill and sensitivity. It is a reminder that words needed at a critical moment can too often prove elusive. This is a tale worthy of wider consideration.

Book Review: That Dark Remembered Day

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That Dark Remembered Day, by Tom Vowler, explores the impact on individual lives of trauma, family and blame.

A soldier returns from the Falklands War damaged by his experiences. Neither he nor his family know how to cope with the change in him, which culminates in an act of violence so brutal as to affect the entire town in which they live. The book presents the build up to this event from each of the characters points of view. The lasting effects on the son, now a father himself, are described with raw honesty. It is a study of ordinary people and the difficulties of facing up to tragedy when, with hindsight, there is a fear that at least a part could have been prevented had different actions been taken at the time.

The tale unfolds in time frames, allowing the reader to understand the mindsets of each of the characters before, during and after the pivotal day that changed their lives forever. This jumping around does not interrupt the flow, although I felt a little impatience as it took some time to get to the act itself. I was concerned that, with such a build up, I would be disappointed when all was revealed. I was not, and soon came to realise that this was not so important anyway. The story was always about what happened next, how those who were left struggled to cope with the memories, the guilt, and the blame.

At the heart of the tale is family, how each member sees the same, shared events differently. The relationships between partners, parents and children are presented unadorned. The family may be a unit but it is made up of individuals, each living their own lives and thinking their own thoughts. Expectations and disappointments that have rumbled unspoken beneath the surface explode into recriminations when the unit is fractured. Each looks at the other and finds fault.

The language of the book is intense but lyrical, understated yet candid. It is an unsettling read, not least because it is believable and the characters, so previously unremarkable, shattered by an extraordinary event, with repercussions living on to the next generation. Family may always be there for its members, but will not always offer what is needed.

The novel has depth and drama, suspense and psychological honesty. It is a page turner that I read in a day but will be considering for some time to come. The accomplished writing and captivating tale make it a book that I would recommend to all.

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