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.