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.
Supposedly at work, Arthur spends his days in the park, consumed by a sense of fraudulence and irrelevance. When he first sees Lydia she is with twin girls who he mistakenly assumes are her children. He soon imagines himself taking this single mother and her girls in, a fantasy Lydia elaborates even as she tells him she is not their mother. As Lydia draws Arthur into her surreal world, she coaxes him into telling her about Sylvie and that ‘other little Arthur’ and soon begins to imitate Sylvie’s past behavior, binding herself to her story and to Arthur. Meeting Lydia had seemed to offer the opportunity for Arthur to recast himself. Yet he finds he is soon trapped into a repetition of what he was trying to escape: Sylvie’s pain finds a distorted mirror in Lydia and he can no more be the Arthur Lydia wants him to be than the Arthur Sylvie or Gerald wanted.
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.
Praise for Starlings
"Starlings, by Miranda Gold, is an intense and evocative journey through the mind of a troubled young woman haunted by her family history." Jackie Law
"Starlings is a challenging novel. It is intense and sometimes seems almost something of a battle. It is, however, a beautifully written battle, with poetic prose that is expertly paced." Anne Cater
People would come to speak of two Londons: one gutted and one singing. Sylvie had found herself in each, straddled them, yet she struggled now to recall either. A dim awareness remained of the bodies trapped under rubble and talking to a woman, holding her hand until the stretcher came; of the jitterbug that had danced round her one night – yes, the ladies in the shelter had taught her, packed in as they were, and drafted her into their world. A gentleman had warned them not to excite a lady in her condition. But then, from Harry’s birth to Arthur’s death, the arc of life was crossed at once. Empty cradle had been twinned with empty grave and took all sense from the body she’d have to live in and the city she was meant to call home.
The last all clear would sound a week later and, while infant heads and hands and feet were blown from tiny bodies rendered nameless, Sylvie forged a tiny corpse of her own. Binding sticks and twigs, lined with moss and stuffed with stones, she wove her Arthur into life suspended and laid him the ground, piling the warmth of the earth over him, planting him out in a second womb. We’ll visit, she promised, every Thursday.
Sylvie crouched and turned up the sleeves of the boy’s coat to find his hands and took one between both of hers. The boy lifted the face he’d buried into his chest just enough for her to see that it was all creases and caverns.
‘I’m to be your Ma,’ she told him. The boy dipped his face again but let her keep his hand, his black eyes on her knees until, crouching too, they found their way up to hers. ‘And you,’ she said, ‘are to be Arthur.’
‘He’s a bit small,’ Gerald said, ‘a bit small and a bit dark – he’ll never match up with Harold’.
Quiet too, Sylvie thought. No, he never would match up. All there seemed to be to match the boy and Harold was the age they shared. Not a day apart. It wasn’t possible, Sylvie had said, the pen she’d been given to sign with falling out of her hand, the sharp black marks of the date on the form seeming to move again. She reminded herself it must have been estimated, maybe even just filled in at the last minute, one day as good as any other. But the less the boy matched up to Harold the more he seemed, at least to Sylvie, to fit the life that had died inside her, that she had felt shrivel while Harold grew and grew.
A stunned and grateful thank you to everyone who has pledged so far - in just 10 days the book is 35% funded. Let's hope we can keep the momentum going so that you can meet the characters who've been keeping me up at night for the past three years. They've been wonderful company, sometimes maddening but always fascinating - I'm already missing them but I can't wait for them to come to life again through…
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