I received a review copy of this book through Netgalley; all opinions are my own and honest.
Summary: March, 1945. The ravaged face of London will soon be painted with victory, but for Sylvie the private battle for peace is only just beginning. Revealing strength and small acts of kindness in the most unlikely places, A Small Dark Quiet looks through the eyes of a mother as she finds the courage to face loss – both her own, and that of the orphan born in a concentration camp whom she and her husband, Gerald, adopt two years later.
Haunted by the gaps in the orphan’s history, Sylvie begins to draw him into parallel with her dead child. When she gives the orphan the stillborn child’s name, Arthur, she unwittingly entangles him in a grief he will never be able to console. His name has been erased, his origins merely guessed at, but the trauma Arthur carries begins to release itself in nightmares, merging into the story he has been told about the dead child whose life he is expected to step into.
Having internalized the sense that he is an imposter, Arthur’s yearning for a place where he might be accepted is echoed in our own time. Striking, too, are the resonances that can be felt through Arthur’s journey as the novel unfolds over the next twenty years: the past he can neither recall nor forget lives on within him even as he strives to forge a life for himself. Identity and belonging may be elusive, but the pulse of survival insists he keeps searching and, as he opens himself to the world around him, there are flashes of just how resilient the human heart can be.
As part of this process, Arthur comes to understand that he is Jewish, yet he fears what this might entail – could this be an identity or will it only make him more of an outsider? He’s threatened with being sent back where he belongs – but no one can tell him where this is; he learns all about ‘that other little Arthur’, yearning both to become him and to free himself from his ghost. He can neither fit the shape of the life that has been lost nor grow into the one his adopted father has carved out for him.
Through Sylvie’s unprocessed grief and Arthur’s acute sense of displacement, A Small Dark Quiet explores how the compulsion to fill the empty space that death leaves can, ultimately, only make the sense of such a devastating void more acute. Yet the search to belong and the instinct to love and connect persists in this story of loss, migration and the ways in which we find ourselves caught between the need to feel safe and the will to be free
Genre(s): Adult, Historical Fiction
Representation: Jewish primary character, adoption
Content warnings: infant death, anti-Semitism, mentions of rape, mentions of abortion, possible PTSD, possible postpartum depression, mental health issues
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The beginning wasn’t half bad — slow, atmospheric, very stream-of-consciousness in a fragmented and chaotic way — but then the rest of the book was exactly the same, only in Arthur’s POV instead of Sylvie’s. The very title alludes to the half-finished and circuitous thoughts (“a small dark quiet” is how Sylvie describes Arthur when they first meet), and while it’s stylistically interesting, for me it lost effectiveness around a third of the way through. That said, I did enjoy the repetitions of certain lines as they take on new meaning, the little callbacks to previous interactions, none of which are explained; it shows faith in the reader’s intelligence, which doesn’t seem to be so popular with conventionally marketed (commercial) books these days.
Although this book is divided into several parts, each is very similar in tone and primary “plot” — Sylvie’s continuing postpartum depression and slipping grip on reality, Gerard’s patriarchal demands, Arthur’s inability to be who he or anyone in his family wants him to be —which adds to the monotony; it didn’t feel like a journey of self-discovery/-exploration as the summary led me to believe, in part because I never connected with the characters. I could see the thoughts that consumed them, how they felt about the people around them, yet the narrative still felt very detached and clinical. I really only felt anything for Harry and Aunt Cynthia: mild curiosity, because they didn’t get very much pagetime but they actually did things besides mope and lash out at those closest to them.
I’m also disappointed that the narrative was so unbalanced. Lydia’s and Jack’s stories were potentially fascinating, but they take a backseat to Arthur’s angst over not being the “real” Arthur. Lydia is literally a younger version of Sylvie, delusions and domestic fantasies/playacting, and Jack is a hardworking but uneducated immigrant who literally carries an English dictionary with him at all times; neither has much bearing on the plot. I also felt like there was an attempt to establish a strong setting, since it’s almost a secondary character in its own right, but it didn’t really come through for me.
The ending was also dissatisfying. I identified a place that would make for a nice ending, a good mix of closure and ambiguity, and was frustrated to see that there were still a few chapters to go — none of which really added to the narrative, and the significance of the actual ending was totally lost on me.
For someone who likes a slow, introspective story focused around grief, guilt, and other all-consuming emotions, this might be one to try. Otherwise, I’d recommend something a little more exciting, with more dynamic characters and plot.