I had a few false starts with novels before picking up The Children’s Home and finding that it was the book I needed at that time. What marked it out from the others I’d tried, to make me realise that this wouldn’t be another false start? I wish it were that easy to say: something about how the language opened up, I suppose.
The last book I read by Charles Lambert, his fictionalised memoir With a Zero at its Heart, had a tightly rigid structure (with chapters and paragraphs of a set length) which highlighted the fragmentary nature of memory. His new novel is rather different, with its lengthy, meandering passages:
Other children arrived soon after that, as though Morgan had earned them by taking the first one in. Some were abandoned, as Moira had been, left on the kitchen step, which was now checked hourly; others, he suspected, were given to Engel at the door, by whom, he didn’t know. These were the children who arrived empty-handed. By the end of the third month of Moira’s presence in the house, there were six or seven, he wasn’t sure exactly, of varying ages. Moira remained the youngest. According to Engel, who seemed to know, she couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old when she was left. The oldest among them was a fair-haired boy who walked into the house one day with a cardboard tag—the kind used for parcels—attached to his wrist, on which the name David had been written in a childish hand…
The effective of these long paragraphs is to dissolve all action into dream: there’s nowhere for the reader to gain true purchase; you just plunge in, to be carried away by the torrent of words. It’s appropriate, because the whole novel is built on uncertainty: there’s something preternatural about the children who arrive so mysteriously at the big house inhabited by Morgan and his housekeeper Engel. But, if Morgan doesn’t understand who the children are or why they are there, he doesn’t know much about the outside world, either. He’s been rather protected from having to think about things like that, and it started young:
One of Morgan’s first memories after the building of the wall was hearing gunfire and shouting and seeing flames rise from beyond it, while he stood with his hand in his mother’s and listened to her sing a song he had never heard before, in a language he didn’t know. A rebel song, she told him, her dark eyes burning with anger and affront. He didn’t know what rebel meant. When he found out the meaning, he wondered if he had heard her right. Weren’t rebels the ones on the outside, he wondered, the ones who shouted and used their guns and murdered; the ones with a grievance. Perhaps what she had wanted to say was revel. She was never happier in those days than when she was preparing for a party of some kind.
The whole space in which The Children’s Home unfolds is uncertain: there’s a sense of a post-war European locale, but largely at the impressionistic level of the passage quoted above. Even some of the further recesses of the house are unknown to Morgan, so we really are drifting along in the dark with him. Lambert builds an intense feeling of foreboding as the dream continues, uncontrolled by the sleeper/reader, and you wonder where all this is going to go. I could tell you, but I hear an alarm clock ringing…
Book details (Foyles affiliate link)
The Children’s Home (2016) by Charles Lambert, Aardvark Bureau paperback