Books: A Small Dark Quiet by Miranda Gold
PUBLISHED: 15:04 22 January 2019
Primrose Hill novelist's book set in the post-war years deals with the legacy of trauma and how the past plays out in the next generation
The legacy of war and trauma reaches across generations in Miranda Gold’s novel A Small Dark Quiet. (Unbound £10)
In March 1945, one of Sylvie’s twins is stillborn in blitz-ravaged London, plunging her into an all-consuming grief.
Around the same time, a Jewish baby boy is born in a concentration camp. Two years later Sylvie and her husband Gerald adopt the orphaned child, naming him Arthur, after the son they lost. But how does the boy whose own name was erased carry a grief he will never be able to console - and reconcile it with his own trauma and need to belong?
In Gold’s etheral, lyrical novel, Sylvie and Arthur’s loss merge as he suffers from nightmares and fragments of emerging memories. He both yearns to be the original Arthur and to free himself from the ghost child he finds it impossible to fit the shape of.
Gold, whose debut novel, Starlings, explored the impact of untold stories about the Holocaust ricocheting down the years, grew up in Hampstead and now lives in Primrose Hill. She says: “I was interested in how the past plays out in the next generation and how it’s embedded in the present.
“I wanted to explore the aftermath, particularly of war against the backdrop of those myths of grand heroism, and how we might carry those legacies forward,”
The themes, she says came together “quite nicely”
“There was an intriguing quality to bringing an unresolved loss, a baby taken away before Sylvie has a chance to hold him or lay him in a grave, into a sense of reality and pain. How do you grieve for something you never quite had, how does Arthur hold on to memories that are not quite conscious and preverbal?”
Speculating about what happened to Arthur’s mother, Sylvie becomes haunted by the idea she has stolen the child of this unknown woman.
Gold was inspired by Fate Unknown, an exhibition at the Wiener Library about how charities such as the British Red Cross and Jewish Relief tried to trace Europe’s missing Jews and reunite them with their families.
Many of course never found out what had happened to their loved ones.
“History rounds numbers off, we remember the six million. With a novel you can go quite deep into and remember that six million and one.”
Some orphans of Nazi genocide came to the UK, and when Sylvie hears this on the radio, she sees adopting Arthur as a blank slate.
“But no-oone is a blank slate, there is no tabula rasa everything carries a history, a blueprint on the most basic level,” warns Gold.
Sylvie is bereaved at a time when grief was poorly dealt with and understood. Hearing stories of death in the war, she feels her own is insigificant.
“The right to grieve would have been deeply challenging for Sylvie, she has this constant stream coming through the wireless and doesn’t feel she has the right to grieve when there are so many deaths. It wasn’t conscious in Sylvie’s mind that a child can replace or console you for the losss of another, she doesn’t realise she’s doing it. We can feel compassion and still see it’s incredibly unhealthy.”
Arthur grows curious about his Jewish heritage hoping for a sense of belonging, yet fearful of the persecutory voices that he’s inernalised.
As an adult he wanders looking for purpose and his place in the world, feeling an imposter at home and in his adopted city. He meets Lydia who at first seems to offer a cure for his displacement, yet turns out to repeat the thing he’s escaping from.
Yet Gold admires Arthur’s and particularly Sylvie’s struggle for survival, and finds hope in the human resilience of carrying on daily life.
“There is a sense of heroism and devastation in those incredible acts of courage. A really quiet kind of courage to get through the day, do the shopping and somehow keeping your head above water and find space for your grief.”
Set around north London as a King Alfred pupil, Gold used to walk through Golders Hill Park on her way home and she places Arthur on a particular bench she now thinks of as his.
“These places really take root in your imagination and it’s impossible to disentangle them from your psyche.”