The jacket of Merethe Lindstrom’s beautifully written, quietly devastating novel suits it perfectly: the door of an almost empty room opens onto another room, opening onto another, all in varying shades of grey. It’s narrated by Eva and begins with an intruder, a young man who asks to use her phone when she is at home alone with her young daughters, setting us up for a very different kind of book from the meditation on memory and withholding, silence and loss, that it becomes.
Simon is ten years older that Eva. A Jewish refugee, he and his immediate family spent much of the second world war in hiding: the rest were lost to the camps. Now an old man, he has dementia although at times it seems as if he has escaped the feelings of guilt and loss which haunt him by gradually withdrawing leaving Eva in ever-deepening silence. Eva also has a secret, one that she kept from Simon for many years as if it hardly mattered. Neither of them has shared their past with their three daughters, now grown up. They have few friends, becoming attached to their Eastern European cleaner whose dismissal and the reason why looms large in both their lives and the novel.
Eva’s narrative returns again and again to themes of memory, loss, the silence of withheld secrets and with them, understanding. Its quiet, understated almost dispassionate tone sharpens the pain of Eva and Simon’s silence. Ultimately, it poses the question is it better to share the truth, no matter how painful, than attempt to protect either oneself or those who need to know by withholding it. Hardly an easy read, then, but one which provides a great deal to think about and a great deal to admire.
This will be my last review before Christmas but the plan for the next few days is to offer a glimpse of what publishers will be tempting us with in the New Year, or at least the temptations I’m eagerly anticipating.