CategoryLambert Charles

The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert

ChildrensHomeI 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…


Read other reviews of The Children’s Home at Lonesome Reader, A Life in Books, and His Futile Preoccupations.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Children’s Home (2016) by Charles Lambert, Aardvark Bureau paperback

Two from the Friday Project: Charles Lambert and Harry Karlinsky

Charles Lambert, With A Zero at its Heart (2014)
Harry Karlinsky, The Stonehenge Letters (2014)

The Friday Project is one of my favourite imprints of any mainstream publisher; their range is eclectic, and their selection of fiction always interesting. Here are my thoughts on a couple of their recent novels.


LambertYou can calculate the length of Charles Lambert’s With a Zero at its Heart precisely: there are 24 chapters (themed on topics like ‘Travel’, ‘Art’ and ‘Waiting’), each with ten numbered paragraphs of 120 words, plus one final paragraph as a coda. Each paragraph represents an episode from its protagonist’s life (a fictionalised version of Lambert’s own, I understand). The paragraphs in each chapter aren’t necessarily in chronological order, but there is a sense of movement: so, for example, the chapter on ‘Clothes’ begins with the protagonist as a ten-year-old with his first pair of jeans; goes on to depict him as an adult in Italy shopping for clothes with his partner (“It is hot, and so are they, and they have no idea how hot”); and ends with him buying the suit that he will wear at his father’s funeral.

There’s an interesting dissonance between the rigid structure of the book, and the very fluid nature of what’s being described; this highlights that the memories we each hold are ultimately what we make of them (which is underlined further by Lambert’s distancing third-person voice). The individual paragraphs may be affecting, but the contrasts and linkages created by their arrangement deepen the book’s power.

With a Zero at its Heart makes an interesting point of comparison with Knausgaard, in that both treat incidents from the author’s life as a way of exploring memory. But where (say) A Death in the Family creates a dense thicket of detail shot through with moments of transcendence, Lambert’s book is quite spare and crystalline; the experience of reading it is more a gradual accumulation of pieces that coalesce into a whole picture. Like Knausgaard, though, Lambert juxtaposes the incidents of everyday life with the unchanging realities of living.



Harry Karlinsky’s first novel, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects, was such an idiosyncratic book that it made me wonder what on Earth the author would write next. Here’s the answer: another work of fiction disguised as non-fiction, and drawing (to an extent!) on genuine historical documents. Karlinsky’s narrator is a psychiatrist preoccupied with why Sigmund Freud never won a Nobel Prize. The narrator’s researches reveal that a secret codicil to Alfred Nobel’s will established another contest: winners of one of the official Nobel Prizes would be invited to submit their theories explaining the mystery of Stonehenge; The Stonehenge Letters recounts the theories of several Nobel laureates, including Marie Curie and Rudyard Kipling.

Well, there wasn’t actually a Stonehenge Prize, but Karlinsky makes the thought of it very plausible. There are sly nudges that what we’re reading is a spoof: the narrator’s footnotes, which bring everything back to Freud; and some oddly random illustrations (“Figure 5. A one-legged stool”). But all the theories put forward about Stonehenge are genuine enough, even if they were advanced by different people. When Einstein is quoted as assessing Marie Curie’s theory (which we’d recognise as carbon-dating) as “decidedly theoretical”, it’s almost goading us into doubting what we think is fiction and what fact. I’m in no doubt, however, that Harry Karlinsky has written another delightful book in The Stonehenge Letters.


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