The mysteries of childhood take on a deeper resonance after a mother’s disappearance from Cold War Britain.
In her finely composed second novel, Harding (The Solitude of Thomas Cave, 2007) conjures up the enigmatic home life of eight-year-old Anna Wyatt and her older brother Peter. Neither of them can fully accept their mother’s sudden, scarcely explained death in 1961. The past, notably World War II, casts long shadows over the scenario: Anna and Peter’s German mother and English father met in the ruins of Berlin; the Wyatts have a friend who survived a Japanese POW camp; and Anna’s piano teacher, who left Germany in a Kindertransport, is struggling with her history. Their father did secret war work, and stories of spies and sleeper agents haunt the bereaved children’s imaginations. Inexplicable connections, like a passing glimpse of a woman wearing their mother’s coat, multiply their uncertainties. The piano teacher’s suicide during the endless winter underscores the mood of fragility and concealment. Harding alternates between narrations by Anna as a child and as an adult, with the latter sections following her to Berlin and then to her mother’s hometown, Königsberg (now Kaliningrad in Russia), as she sifts through the past. There are few hard facts to be learned, but a deft conclusion pulls together the elusive, engrossingly atmospheric strands.
An aching, delicate and affecting interpretation of loss and acceptance.