Life has been desperately unkind to 52-year-old Gilda Meyer, or so she believes. She should be happy on this bright August day in 1969, attending the wedding of Reuben, her beloved son and only child. Gilda had little choice in her own marriage at the age of 18, and the couple’s obvious joy is a grating reminder of her own regrets, a chorus of what-ifs contrasting sharply with this summer of love and abandon. Gilda dotes on Reuben, yet his distance from her rankles: he rarely calls and his affection is limited. And yet he’s a different man with Alice, his new bride, and Gilda cannot bear it: “What magic did this young girl use?”
Now alone after a second divorce and an increasing dependence on whisky, she ponders Reuben’s evident dislike and resolves to make amends: “I picture the past as a sort of Rolodex with thousands of life events marked out on cards . . . I need to flick back through . . . then maybe I can sort them out and fix the errors I’ve made.”
Francesca Jakobi’s debut is ambitious in scope, investigating her central character in forensic detail, with short, pacy chapters that alternate between past and present — all told from Gilda’s point of view. Charting a childhood in Hamburg to excruciating years at a British boarding school as the only Jewish girl in her class, Gilda then experiences the delirious boredom of upper-class life as a wife during the Blitz and falls pregnant with Reuben.
Alongside this historical thread, Gilda’s obsession with atonement manifests in an obsession with her son’s wife. She peers in through the couple’s windows, hides in their shrubbery and follows Alice to work. With each unreliable statement she implores the reader to collude in a disturbing denial: “I happen to be passing their house, that’s all.” We don’t trust her but feel compelled to bear witness.
The novel’s structure allows Jakobi — a journalist at the FT — to propel this mounting sense of unease while presenting a form of defence through Gilda’s own, self-serving parents. Her feelings of nihilism after Reuben’s birth suggest this history of failed parenthood is doomed to repeat itself. “My husband would go on working, my son would go on growing, soldiers on both sides would go on fighting. None of them needed me.” The misanthropy she exhibits may well have made this an astonishingly depressing space to inhabit for the author, but Jakobi tempers the gloom with flashes of wry humour: when asked to accompany her only friend to the doctor she muses, “Who wouldn’t want to see a toenail operation? I live for outings like that.”
The narrative includes a strong theme of cultural and societal change — giant leaps for humankind abound in 1969, and Gilda must sink or swim in this “new age”. Her isolation is only exacerbated by these shifts in attitude, and her acceptance or rejection of them will also inform the potential for a family-shattering disclosure within the novel’s climax. At once tragic and engrossing, this gimlet-eyed character study elicits sympathy and damnation, both for Gilda herself and for the circumstances that have defined her.