REVIEW: The Children’s House by Alice Nelson

In brief: Marina and Jacob lead a happy life in New York. But when Constance comes into their orbit, Marina finds herself enthralled by Gabriel. Is she interfering or simply helping Constance and her son?

The good: A rich story, full of detail.

The not-so-good: So sad in parts.

Why I chose it: Sounded interesting and I like to try to support West Australian authors – thank you Penguin for the copy.

Year: 2018

Pages: 295

Publisher: Penguin

Setting: Mainly New York City

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

The Children’s House is a strong, character driven story that reveals the deepest emotions of its characters in a quietly powerful way. I wasn’t expecting the story to be as compelling as it was, but it sucked me in rather quickly! Alice Nelson has a way of drawing the reader into the world of her characters, seating you at the dinner table, in the study…wherever they go. The story discusses mothers in all forms – from those desperate to love to those who appear to be desperate to leave.

Marina, the main character, falls into the former category. She has been married to Jacob for many years, but they never had children of their own. Marina dotes on Jacob’s son Ben from his first disastrous marriage. Ben is now grown up and is undergoing a quiet rebellion of his own – away from college, stacking shelves and newly single. Both she and Jacob worry for Ben but accept that he must make his own decisions. Overall, the family is closely knit and supportive. Jacob and Marina were both born on a kibbutz in Israel, but his mother’s story of how they came to be there (and leave again) is completely different to that of Marina’s mother. Gizela was always a closed book to Marina and his brother. They know little of her history and spend their childhood trying to get to know their mother, who stubbornly refused. Gizela has been gone for years and it has left a question hanging in Marina’s life.

Marina is a good soul. She’s caring, interested and both notices and questions the world around her. So, it’s not surprising that Gabriel and his mother Constance come to her attention one day in the neighbourhood. Gabriel throws a tantrum, and Constance walks away. Marina swoops into rescue Gabriel and at that moment, a strange connection is established. Constance is from Rwanda and is likely to have suffered during the war. (She reveals very little). Gabriel is her son – but not. He feels foreign and not really hers. But it’s to Marina that Constance turns to when she needs help and soon Marina is heavily involved. Jacob thinks it’s all too much, but Marina can’t seem to let go. The juxtaposition of Marina wanting to give love and demonstrating it in comparison to Constance is striking. We never quite find out why she is so distant, although Marina researches to find out more about life in Rwanda in the 1990s. Yet cold as Constance is, you can’t hate her as a character. You can feel the something missing, the shock of a life turned upside down. Likewise, Marina doesn’t appear ‘goody-goody’ or desperate. She is aware she may be stepping over boundaries but makes a conscious decision to do so, whether that be with Constance or Ben.

Alice Nelson’s writing sings with skills. The nuances of characters are subtly written and realistic. They all feel fleshed out, flawed and alive. The stories of life of the kibbutz were an eye opener to me. I didn’t realise the ideologies involved or the grouping of the children into the one children’s house. It was rather shocking! These scenes also nicely reflected how Constance and one of the other characters, Alma, felt being in a foreign land. The excitement of the new and the scariness of the unknown…it all makes for an emotive, gripping read.

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