Award-winning British novelist Dunmore (Ice Cream, 2003, etc.) tracks the rollercoaster ride of a young woman from nothingness to identity, a journey she is fated to repeat.
In 1965, newborn Rebecca’s mother abandons her in a shoebox behind an Italian restaurant. The kitchen help find her before the rats, and she is passed on to adoptive parents who feed her but forget to love her. Haunted by the void in her past, Rebecca must wait until she is grown to find salvation in two men. Joe, who’s writing a book about Stalin’s second wife that eventually becomes a bestseller, is her empathetic roommate, the brother she has never had. His equally attentive friend Adam, a doctor whose specialty is premature babies, becomes Rebecca’s husband, and her adult identity is complete when she gives birth to Ruby. Life is wonderful until five-year-old Ruby dies in a car accident and Rebecca regresses to “the habit of nothing.” She and Adam separate, but she encounters a third unconventional savior, Mr. Damiano, a circus impresario turned hotelier who places absolute trust in her abilities as his personal assistant. Meanwhile, Joe, who has never forgotten Rebecca’s need for ancestors, is writing a story to erase her fixation on that wretched shoebox. In his work-in-progress, set in France in 1917, single mother Florence vows never to abandon her daughter, even if it means working in a brothel close to the front. Joe’s story is both echo chamber and harbinger: Florence shields her child from hostile aircraft just as Rebecca had once dreamed of shielding Ruby from traffic, while the brothel’s attic bedroom will find its counterpart in the attic bedroom that reunites Adam and Rebecca.
The layered narrative somewhat muffles the impact of Rebecca’s emotional death and rebirth, but Dunmore’s eighth novel still offers plenty of incidental pleasures.