I’ve mentioned before my very high opinion of Honno Welsh Women’s Press – I can’t recall a single book they’ve published that has failed to delight me – and it’s a real pleasure today to share my review of one of their latest, Reparation, the debut novel from Gaby Koppel. Published on the 21st February for kindle and in paperback, I’d like to thank the publishers for my advance reading e-copy, and Emily Burns for inviting me to join the blog tour.
Her job, her family, her lover – which will she choose?
1997, TV journalist Elizabeth is pursuing a story of a child’s disappearance in the north London Hasidic community. In the wake of her father’s sudden death and her alcoholic mother’s increasing obsession with her childhood in wartime Hungary, she struggles to manage her job and her relationship. Then she gets a phone call to say that her mother has been arrested in Budapest.
Elizabeth is forced to confront the nature of motherhood, love and loss as she puts together the clues to her mother’s past and to the fate of the lost little girl.
In his cover quote, Jonathan Freedland is absolutely right – this is indeed an ambitious book, with powerful themes. But it’s also highly original, a surprisingly gripping read, and a richly multi-layered story told from an unfamiliar cultural perspective that I thoroughly enjoyed. Elizabeth works on a tv programme making films reconstructing crime incidents, and when a child disappears from a party in the Hasidic community she becomes rather more involved than might perhaps be expected. There’s a wonderful irony in the use of television to attempt to resolve the crime when the community itself eschews all electronic media – and that’s just one of the many things I learned about this fascinating community, as it closes ranks to protect its own.
There’s an exploration too of what it means to be Jewish – Elizabeth herself is very much of the bacon sandwich at a Saturday football match persuasion – and it expands fascinatingly into whether someone who converts can ever be fully part of the faith and community. And then there’s family, and Elizabeth’s mother, magnificent and horrendous by turns, a wonderful creation – I fully empathised with Elizabeth’s dashes to the family home in Cardiff from her own in London for every new crisis, usually of her mother’s making. Their relationship is wonderfully drawn: her mother’s issues are largely the legacy of her wartime flight from Hungary leaving behind her privileged life, and the possibility of securing some financial restitution and perhaps making an emotional recovery begins another quite wonderful story-line involving a dash to Budapest in an attempt to gain some answers.
This book has so many strengths, not the least being its characters. Elizabeth at its centre is exceptionally likeable, with her relationship with the rather hapless Dave, trying to make a success of her television career and manage her workplace relationships, often sidetracked by her love for investigation and going off-piste, while attempting the impossible task of managing her mother’s excesses. The writing is superb, captures the many nuances of family and other relationships: and the sense of place, whether North London or Budapest, is quite exceptional. The humour – and there’s plenty woven into the sometimes harrowing story – is so well-judged, but so are the moments of drama, vividly described and immensely moving. Those themes of restitution, justice and forgiveness are beautifully handled, along with the introduction of fascism/communism and the whole servant/master relationship – but should you be a tad put off by a book described in terms of its themes, it also has a compelling narrative drive that made me read it in almost a single sitting. Very, very different – and quite excellent. Highly recommended by me, and quite probably one of my books of the year.
About the author
Gaby Koppel grew up in Cardiff and studied at the University of Sussex. She is a journalist, film-maker and producer with credits across a broad range of factual television including Crimewatch UK and Watchdog for BBC TV. In 2001 she staged the first ever national event to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day.
Gaby started writing her debut novel Reparation while doing a Masters degree in Creative Writing at City University, where it won a prize and was later long-listed for the Bath Novel Award. She continues to work as a television series producer and freelance print journalist while working on a second novel. She is married with three children and lives in North London.