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: Dazzling the Gods

Dazzling the Gods, by Tom Vowler, is a collection of sixteen short stories. These are followed by Acknowledgements that offer a tantalising glimpse of plotlines that cry out to be expanded, which the author suggests is exactly where some of his tales have come from. He writes in rich, evocative prose and is not averse to commenting on his fellow writers and their craft. His observations on this, and the other themes he explores, are incisive.

In Lucca: Last Days of a Marriage, where the protagonist, who is an editor, contemplates the book he has been tasked with completing following the death of its author, he writes:

“What struck him most when he first read Pollex was that he could write, really write; so many books he edited were conceptually and structurally and tonally strong, would sell in significant number, but which neglected the music of a sentence, its ability to be affective rather than merely expository. Abstract instead of just literal. Pollex, he felt, troubled his sentences into existence, cared for them as one might a prized possession, or one’s child. He was a stylist who, until Lucca at any rate, knew when to get out of a sentence, knew when lyricism became onanism.”

Many of the stories are searing, their subjects’ suffering a backdrop that requires no further exposition. The reader is trusted to understand, perhaps to empathise. The plots play out how life goes on.

An Arrangement portrays a marriage where a husband’s illness has rendered him largely bedridden. They have agreed that the wife may occasionally seek solace elsewhere, the husband understanding her sacrifice and trying to be generous. Their pain is palpable as each tries to tamp down selfish needs. The suffering caused by chronic, debilitating illness has many aspects affecting all involved.

 Fly, Icarus, Fly opens with two young brothers who are with friends planning to steal birds’ eggs from nests, the casual cruelty to living creatures and boyish jostling for acceptance within a group all too real. When an accident puts paid to the afternoon’s wicked entertainment there remains the question of the cruelties inflicted on people, why the life of one creature is held sacrosanct when others are so thoughtlessly, or sometimes compassionately, terminated.

Certain of the stories are shocking, again without need for explication. Scene Forty-Seven is timely in out #metoo era – a director attempting to garner attention whatever the cost to his actors.

At the Musée dOrsay also explores the direction certain artists take, their need to shock to gain notice, and the complicity of those who support them. The privileged polish their vanities, their wish to be regarded as cultured, included in a rarefied world and at the cutting edge. This leads them to wax lyrical about grotesques, imagining them somehow worthy. It is their own standing they care about. In this story they take old friends along in an attempt to impress. Their hollowness is recognised yet set aside rather than being called out, the shocking truth denied in an attempt to avoid admitting connivance.

The Offspring Badge is a mix of mordant honesty and self-recriminatory poignancy. A recently divorced woman visits her first love in what appears to be his perfect, family home. Their history is significant given how their subsequent lives have played. Within the careful charade of politeness are the woman’s unspoken, caustic observations. Her lover has thrived while she has not. Her reason for visiting appears more flagellation than friendly curiosity.

Undertow is a story of survival. From an almost derelict house a man watches as a woman enters the sea and is dragged under. He rushes to her aid. There remains the unspoken question of why he did so when life remains harsh and challenging. Unlike many of the tales in the collection, this is one of hope rather than stoicism.

Short stories offer snapshots of lives and each of these are largely recognisable. There are elements of the surreal in places, such as the conclusion of Upgrade. Mostly though these tales are representative of man in his many inglorious attempts to shine. The redolent prose, imaginative portrayals and sympathetic rendering make them well worth reading.

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