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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 15 October 2018

'Where to Find Me' is myth and mystery woven into historical tapestry

Alba Arikha’s second novel transports us from Paris to Palestine via the Second World War and the Holocaust. Lucy Scholes is captivated by her gift for storytelling 

Paris' Concorde (concord) square circa 1945 Getty Images
Paris' Concorde (concord) square circa 1945 Getty Images

Alba Arikha’s first novel, Muse, was published nearly 20 years ago. This was followed by Walking on Ice, a collection of short stories; her memoir, Major/Minor, which told the story of her coming of age in Paris in the 1980s; and Soon, a narrative poem-turned opera (in collaboration with her husband, the composer Tom Smail).

Her latest work, Where to Find Me, is a second novel, one that opens in Paris in 1939, where 19-year-old Flore is head-over-heels in love with her boyfriend Jean. Students at the Sorbonne together, they discuss literature and hang out in jazz clubs drinking cheap drinks and smoking. They both want to be writers “and change the world”.

As yet unbeknown to them, of course, their world is about to change irrevocably, but not in the way either of them would have hoped. Flore, who is Jewish, soon finds her entire existence overturned. Her family is transported to concentration camps, only she evades capture, and thus only she escapes the conflict alive.

Broken, post-war Paris is not the city she once knew – “The familiar space I once inhabited has lost its meaning. Everything has lost its meaning” – so she leaves for Palestine, hoping to start her life afresh. There, against the backdrop of the “blinding white light. The dusty heat. The resinous scent of pine. The cyan blue of the sea”, she encounters an “urgency ... as hard and hot as the stones that dominate the landscape”. She finds people who understand her, no more so than Ezra, the young man with whom she falls in love. Theirs is not a happy ending though, and it’s with an even heavier heart that Flore – who has since changed her name to Flora – returns to Paris, and thereafter starts over again in London.

Fast-forward 40 years, and Flora is now an old woman, living alone in Notting Hill. “There’s a secret there, waiting to be deciphered. Or plucked, like ripe fruit,” declares one of her neighbours, a well-known theatre director who is fascinated by this “mysterious lady of indeterminate age who wanted nothing more than to be left alone”.

He’s not wrong. But he won’t be the one who uncovers it, instead it’s his teenage daughter Hannah. She shares the novel’s narration with Flora, Arikha having split the text into sections that alternate between the perspectives of her two protagonists. As such, Flora’s story is pieced together in fragments, the reader’s understanding of her traumatic life story coming into focus only just ahead of Hannah’s comprehension. The fate of these two women is tied together long after Flora leaves the west London neighbourhood where Hannah’s family lives, long after Flora passes away, in fact.

'Where to Find Me' by Alba Arikha Courtesy Alma Books
'Where to Find Me' by Alba Arikha Courtesy Alma Books

Where to Find Me is a rich reservoir of stories, Arikha having spun thread after thread of narrative, connections across history and geographical borders, backstories upon which each character’s present-day iteration firmly rests. Yet, despite such a cacophony of voices, the novel is strangely sterile.

The vast majority of the writing rests on telling, not showing. And while Flora’s narrative, which is presented by means of a memoir that she pens late in her life, allows for this distance, Hannah’s story does not. It needs something to distinguish it from Flora’s – dip into the book without checking whose section you’re in, and bar the more obvious details that give away the period being referred to, it’s all but impossible to distinguish Flora’s voice from Hannah’s, or vice versa. Arikha employed this intimate first-person narration in her own memoir, Major/Minor, with enchanting effect. But fiction demands a different kind of fluency.

This distance also means there is little space for the reader. Rather than allowing us to make the connections between how certain formative life experiences – namely loss and suffering – an effect those who have been forced to endure such hardships, Arikha spells these out for us. This didacticism becomes uncomfortably overt on occasion, especially when it comes to certain period-specific details. “Declan is a member of the pop-art movement and is seeking a new, post-war interpretation of art,” Flora recounts at one point in her story, referring to a friend’s new boyfriend. “‘The idea of pop art,’ he tells us, ‘is to search for inspiration in the unknown rather than the familiar.’ Declan speaks of collages and consumer goods. Of abstract expressionism

and realism.”

These complaints aside, the story is captivating. There’s something urgent about Arikha’s tone, commanding a reader’s attention. What she lacks in terms of novelistic artistry, she makes up for with what is clearly a natural predisposition for storytelling. She layers chance encounters upon long-grasped secrets and lies; spins mystery and myth out of her characters’ clashes with some of the most traumatic history of the 20th century; and explores the legacies of betrayal and tragedy.

“Was history contagious?” Hannah asks herself. “Something told me that it was. A hereditary pattern which spread its germs and spawned other variants of the same condition. I needed to ensure I would be immune to those symptoms. I wanted to create my own permutations, my own history, untainted by its predecessors.”

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