Monday 19 December 2016

Children at the Gate

Lynn Reid Banks is a writer who has been part of my life for a very long time. I read the 'L-Shaped Room' trilogy when I was a teenager and it had quite an influence on me. I picked up 'Children at the Gate' in Hay a couple of weeks ago because I have not read anything else by her since. 
Ostensibly about a woman recovering from the death of her young son and the subsequent breakdown of her marriage it is a very atmospheric book that captures Israel of the 1960s, painting us pictures of the Arab quarter in Acco, the Kibbutz and then the port of Jaffa. Gerda lives on the seedy side of town in a run down house, befriended only by Kofi who wants to save her from her self-destructive behaviour. When she finally confides her history to him he arranges for her to adopt two supposed Arab orphans. To avoid the attentions of the authorities she takes them to live at a nearby Kibbutz. Though they all settle into the life there the children's past catches up with them and they are forced to move on.

"The square outside was pitch dark except for a paraffin lamp hissing high up on one of the arched galleries opposite. Our house has iron balconies but the rest of the square was built much earlier and has a kind of cloister with beautiful arches at first-floor level which goes round three sides of the square. I say 'beautiful' because at night they are - this is Acco's second self, her night-self, when all the day-smells are lifted from her and replaced by cool sea-winds drifting through her narrow alleys and flooding softly into the open squares; when darkness covers the dirt and squalor like snow, leaving only the shapes, the smooth outlines of domes and minarets against the stars, the perfectly balanced archways, the mysterious broken flights of stairs and half-open doorways, the cold but not unkind flare of a paraffin lamp showing a brief interior, its walls painted in grotto shades of blue and green and hung with prints whose cheap tastelessness a passing glimpse does not show." (p.28)

"I hardly slept at all, and only a great mug of black coffee in the grey damp early morning cleared my head sufficiently so I could stumble through the empty streets to Kofi's house. Only when I got there did I realise it was far too early to burst in upon him. I wandered about in a fever of impatience; the rain began to fall again in sheets and I took shelter in a tunnel-like archway. I could see the minaret of the big mosque from there, and soon the muezzin came out on the circular balcony, a small, oddly heroic figure, and gave his call to the wet empty morning like some lonely bird crying for company. The minor-key notes burst from his throat like a series of underwater bubbles and streamed through the rain almost visibly, splashing open on closed wooden doors and bruised yellow walls and the eardrums of faithful and unbelieving alike." (p.98)

Since I was a child I have been fascinated with the idea of Kibbutz, I am not sure where I learned about them but the notion of living communally was something that drew me. So although the story is about mothering and it's impact I was almost more interested in the picture it drew of life in this most unusual of organisations. The book is told first person by Gerda and is full of self hatred and exquisite examination of all her inadequacies. It takes her several years, but the story charts her struggle to learn to value herself again as she learns to take care of the needs of the children and build a relationship with them. However, when her new life crumbles around her she falls back into her old habits of thought very easily. I found her a not very likeable character, desperately needy and selfish; she wants to be a better person than she is but struggles so hard to believe herself capable of it. I enjoyed it for the honesty of how Gerda tells her story, the contrast between her self-doubt and the growing confidence in her role as mother to Ella and Peretz, she is a very real human being. Lynne Reid Banks spend time living on a kibbutz and her experiences found their way into several of her novels. Politically the story is very neutral, not presenting Israel in either a positive or negative light; the difficulties of the children being illegal immigrants is very matter of fact, and though the 'war' starts at the end of the book the story manages to stay away from the fraught political situation of the time.  

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