The Children’s House…
About the Book:
A love song to the idea of families in all their mysteries and complexities, their different configurations and the hope that creates them.
Marina and her husband, Jacob, were each born on a kibbutz in Israel. They meet years later at a university in California, when Jacob is a successful psychiatrist with a young son, Ben, from a disastrous marriage. The family moves to a brownstone in Harlem, formerly a convent inhabited by elderly nuns.
Outside the house one day Marina encounters Constance, a young refugee from Rwanda, and her toddler, Gabriel. Unmoored and devastated, Constance and Gabriel quickly come to depend on Marina; and her bond with the little boy intensifies. The pure, blinding love that it is possible to feel for children not our own is the thread that weaves through The Children’s House.
When Marina learns some disturbing news about her long-disappeared mother, Gizela, she leaves New York in search of the loose ends of her life. As Christmas nears, her tight-knit, loving family, along with Constance and Gabriel, join Marina in her mother’s former home, with a startling consequence, an act that will transform all of their lives forever.
Alice Nelson skilfully weaves together these shared stories about the terrible things humans are capable of into a beautifully told, hope-filled novel exploring the profound consolations that we can find in each other.
The Children’s House is a stunning novel, deeply moving and exquisitely written. Character driven, it is highly accessible literary fiction, a study in displacement and the lasting effects of severe trauma. The title of the novel refers to the place in an Israeli kibbutz where children live, so called, the Children’s House. Newborns are delivered there, from the time their mothers are released from hospital after giving birth, expected to live there with only one hour per day set aside for visiting with their parents. Siblings, if they are of the opposite sex, are separated. The idea is that the children belong to the nation, not their parents, and they can only grow into strong Jewish people for Israel if they are raised communally in the Children’s House. Marina, the main character in this novel, was born in a kibbutz, and along with her brother, spent her formative years in the Children’s House. The effects on her inform much of this novel, but it is the dysfunctional relationship she and her brother had with their mother after leaving the kibbutz that truly sets the stage.
‘It was not the way of the kibbutz. It was done for the sake of the children and the country. They were Sabras and they needed to be strong. None of this clinginess and fear. Even as a child, it had sounded like propaganda to Marina. A rehearsed socialist narrative. It was hard for her to imagine such a pragmatic coldness. But everyone on the kibbutz had come out of Europe. They had all been wrenched from the known world, where mothers tended their children and ordinary intimacies were possible. Perhaps their ability to love their children in the old ways had been scoured out of them, along with everything else.’
Gizela, Marina’s mother, had a devastating effect on her children. She was entirely disengaged, not just with them, but with life itself. She walked out of their life when Marina was seventeen, the day that Dov, Marina’s brother, committed suicide. This was no coincidence. The author skilfully explores the impact of the Holocaust on Gizela, specifically her displacement from Prague, a place wiped from existence and refashioned by the Soviets after the war. This was compounded by her exile from the kibbutz when her husband was killed, effectively displacing her once again. To me, Gizela was a husk of a person, moving through life like a shadow. The inter-generational effect of this was profound.
‘Dov believed it was the Children’s House which had made it impossible for Gizela to love them. That if she had cared for her own babies, had held them and fed them and rocked them to sleep, she would have loved them. Proximity, Dov believed, would have made things different…
…Marina thought of Constance. As far as she knew, Gabriel had been with her from the very beginning. She knew the sound of his cries, the weight of him against her back, the smell of his skin. And this had made no difference.’
Everything we learn about Marina, her mother, and her brother, is through reflection. Despite having her life in order, the dysfunction has had a lasting effect on Marina and weighs heavily. Much of it is triggered when she meets Constance, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. She and her toddler son, Gabriel, are refugees. Marina meets them by accident, but becomes a part of their life with intent. There are strong parallels drawn between Constance and Gisela, as well as between Marina and Gabriel. Constance is an apathetic mother, disengaged with her son, and with everything around her. Just as Gizela moved through life as a shadow, so too does Constance. Marina is overcome with an urge to help Constance, but the more involved she becomes, the less it is about Constance and the more it is about Gabriel. In short, she falls in love with him; with his need for love. She recognises herself in him, sees herself as his saviour. With a now grown step-son, but no children of her own, Gabriel fills a void she is still young enough to feel.
‘She had heard Jacob speak once about the kind of foraging practised by orphans, or by the children of neglectful or abusive parents. Not for food or shelter, but for affection. For some scrap of sustaining emotion, some recognition. Small kindnesses they could make use of to right themselves in the world. She had done it herself, she realised.’
I loved Marina, I really did. She had such a terribly tragic time of it, and yet she set out with intent and made something worthwhile of her life, married a wonderful man, became a terrific step-mother. Successful in her career as an academic, despite doubting her skill as a teacher, she had my full admiration. I could completely understand the pull she felt when it came to Gabriel. The urge to protect, to nurture, to raise up and provide every opportunity for success. The urge to save a child as you had not been saved yourself. Marina was surrounded by her husband’s family, a collection of truly beautiful people. Her mother-in-law Rose was the polar opposite of Gizela. She and her husband had also lived on a kibbutz, but upon the birth of her child, Jacob (Marina’s husband), she fled, unable to contemplate handing her child over to the Children’s House. Rose was so giving, her heart so big and welcoming, as was Leah, her daughter. It was just so lovely to experience a character whose in-laws were wonderful, as opposed to irritating and overbearing, a common depiction.
Displacement is a key theme in this novel, not just for Gizela and Constance, but also for the order of nuns who sold the brownstone to Jacob and Marina. I loved how their experiences were woven into the story, but I’m not going to give anything away about that. Best you discover their reasons for being in the story for yourself. What struck my heart with this novel is how extreme trauma can break people, shatter them beyond repair. Some things can never be recovered. So it was for Constance, who loved her son, but had no ability to feel it, to act upon it. And so it was for Gizela too. It’s desperately sad, the things humans do to each other, how far-reaching trauma is, rippling down the generations, fracturing relationships beyond repair.
The Children’s House is beautifully written, with exquisite depth of feeling, vividly wrought. I loved this novel so much, became so invested in Marina’s life. I felt her tragedy and triumph keenly, I could relate to her on so many levels. This novel is not to be overlooked. Savour it, linger over the prose, immerse yourself in Marina’s life.
‘Impossible to fathom any of it. The distant sound of voices in the courtyard, the faraway hum of traffic, the catch and drip of the rain against the glass, the cooling cup of tea in front of her: the whole episode seemed suspended, out of time. She didn’t know how long she sat at her desk after she read the letter, her hands clasped around the mug on her desk to keep them from shaking, the tight twist of fear in her stomach. She laid her head down on the desk and closed her eyes.’
Thanks is extended to Penguin Random House Australia for providing me with a copy of The Children’s House for review.
About the Author:
After university in Australia, Alice Nelson lived and worked in Harlem, living in the brownstone on 120th Street in which The Children’s House is set. While studying in New York, she worked at a non-profit agency run by an order of nuns as a case worker with refugee and undocumented migrant families. Alice was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists for her first novel, The Last Sky. The novel also won the TAG Hungerford Award and was shortlisted for the Australian Society of Authors’ Barbara Jefferis Award and for The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award. Alice’s short fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in publications such as The Sydney Review of Books, The Asia Literary Review, Southerly Magazine and the West Australian Newspaper. Alice now lives in Perth.
The Children’s House
Published by Penguin Random House Australia
Released on 1st October 2018