Intimate parallels in two diaries
Amanda Hopkinson enjoys a blending of lives. Peter Lawson welcomes the familiar and the foreign (Russian) Where to Find Me
Alma Books, £12.99
Reviewed by Amanda Hopkinson
ALBA ARIKHA was named after an eponymous poem by Samuel Beckett, her godfather. Her mother is the American poet, Anne Atik, who has written a memoir of Beckett; her father, the French-Israeli artist, Avigdor Arikha. Alba was educated in Paris and New York. She has told an interviewer: “Being Jewish is an aside, like hair or eye colour…” and she explored her coming-of-age in an earlier book, Major/Minor.
In this new novel, Flora and Hannah, born a generation apart, tell their alternating adolescent stories, infused by the legacy of the Shoah, as was Alba’s own.
Flora’s opens in Paris, summer 1939, scene of first love (“Jean writes poetry for me on bus tickets… kisses me on street corners, and tells me I’m the one”). He dumps her as antisemitism intensifies, and soon Flora will lose both parents, deported to Auschwitz.
She reaches Palestine, whose initially liberating expanses — of deserts, seas and skies — become the backdrop in the battle to depose the British mandate and install a biblical homeland.
Flora is now in love with a charismatic Czech reputedly related to Kafka. Their driving passions extend beyond Alba Arikha: connects generations. Above left: her godfather Samuel Beckett sketched by Avigdor Arikha their common love of poetry, art and each other. It is the time of the bomb attack on the King David Hotel by the Irgun, an organisation Flora has grown closer to than she realises. She leaves, via a Paris she can no longer inhabit, for London, where she works as a tutor, a translator, in Selfridges selling perfumes, and at St Martin’s as an artist’s model. She falls, first, for the (unlikely) descendant of Robert Schumann; then for his moral opposite, world-renowned conductor Henry Dobbs.
Hannah’s story opens mid-1986, “with the arrival of a letter of acceptance into St. Paul’s School. I was sixteen years old and thrilled”. She, too, has encountered first love, in the person of Arun, late of Calcutta, and “some sort of maths genius… I was his first girlfriend; he was my second kiss”. Fury tears at her family, for which her angry, wayward brother Ben is the lightning rod.
She grows up living opposite the now elderly Flora in a pre-gentrified Notting Hill. Each is profoundly intrigued by the other — yet they meet to talk only once. Hannah both sees too much of what goes on over the road and conceals what she cannot reveal.
In a book of many secrets and clandestine activity, the final clue lies in the title. Where to Find Me concerns two diaries more intertwined than either writer knew. There are traces of poetry and painting — including a meticulous attention to colour in passages describing Paris, Jerusalem and London. Yet it is not in those cities but in their notebooks that each of the protagonists can be found. Two lives as close as their houses, bound never to connect.
Amanda Hopkinson is a writer and translator