I am often asked where the ideas for my novels come from — the answer is, I’m not entirely sure. For me, stories are like dust motes and, if I’m patient, one floats down and begs to be written. Never has this been truer than for my new novel, The Unfinished Business of Eadie Browne, a coming-of-age story set in the late 1980s and 1990s. It’s a special book for me because, for the first time in my 28-year career, I felt compelled to write a story with Jewish characters and values at its core. For a while I wasn’t entirely sure why. Then, as the novel developed, I began to understand.
The eponymous Eadie Browne is a quirky kid with odd parents who live next door to a municipal multi-faith cemetery in unremarkable small-town England. She’s bullied at school — but so are her two best friends: Celeste, for being rich, and Josh, for being Jewish. Eadie has never met a Jew before Josh and initially she’s not entirely sure what one is — this reminded me of arriving at university in 1986 and meeting Vicky from deepest darkest Leicestershire who was staggered and slightly disappointed to find out I’m Jewish.
“But I thought I’d know when I met someone Jewish,” she said woefully.
With this novel, I felt I had both the opportunity and also a duty to impart little glimpses of Jewish life and what a Jewish identity is all about, for my mainly non-Jewish readership. I had the perfect flag bearers in the characters of Josh and his grandfather, Reuben, a Holocaust survivor. I had the perfect setting of a fictitious town on the Hertfordshire-Bedfordshire border.
It’s a prerequisite of my job to live and breathe alongside the characters, to truly know them so my readers will believe in them. As I researched, wrote and explored the themes in this book, I found myself contemplating my own identity as a British Jew. I wondered about how I fit into the community — I have lived my adult life in a secular way, did that count? Also, as a single mum whose kids had recently left home, I began to experience a burgeoning desire to learn more about my lineage, perhaps in a bid to make the whole wide world seem smaller and more connected.
As Jewish people, we tend to be aware of our diasporic routes (I’m Russian and Dutch and Polish and German) and we all know certain details about our forebears — but do we ever stop to really wonder who they were and what their lives must have been like as they found their way to the UK? Fact: my great-Grandpa was the remarkable Reverend Abraham Cohen, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and leader of the Singers Hill community in Birmingham, but he died before I was born so what I know of him are family anecdotes about his sermons being fire-and-brimstone and that he loved my father singing Christmas carols to him. Fact: my great-great grandma Bessie Corper was a chorus girl on the London stage… so many questions! How I wish I’d known her, surely an entire novel, right there? Suddenly, in my fifties and while writing this 16th novel of mine, it became intrinsically important to me that I met my ancestors. So, I asked my dad if he’d accompany me on a day of the dead. It was unforgettable.
Visiting cemeteries and experiencing a physical sense of one’s ancestors is both grounding and profoundly life-affirming. As well as various other relatives lying at rest, I had the honour that day to meet three of my great-great-great- grandparents on my father’s side. To stand with them a while, albeit at their graves, gave me a sense of them as real people. They continue to exist because I am now keeping them alive. I live because of them.
The cemeteries in and of themselves are moving and balancing places to spend awhile. Most people busying their way up and down High Street in Manor Park, London, would pass by the rusting iron gates of the now-closed Plashet Jewish Cemetery without knowing it is there. Only the words “Jews Cem” remain before a newer wall swallows the letters. But here lie families stretching back through generations, each and every one with their own life stories. Buried here are tailors and seamstresses, boot makers and feather curlers, fruit salesmen and diamond traders, fishmongers and cigar makers from a time when the world was so very different. It’s at Plashet that I meet my great-great-great- grandparents Isaac and Annie Skitton. Annie’s gravestone had toppled over, which upset me greatly. I felt we’d neglected her.
“We haven’t forgotten you,” I needed to tell them. “We just haven’t been for a while because, well, life gets in the way.” It was strange to think that their own little girl, Leah, would live to 100 and a half.
Dad and I went to see Leah next; she’s at East Ham Cemetery, with her husband Jacob (according to his naturalisation papers, he was born in Turek, government of Kalish, in the province of Russian Poland). We know they lived in a tiny place in Whitechapel with their four children. Their little boy would go on to win a scholarship to Cambridge University — imagine that, the son of refugees. He would become the Reverend Abraham Cohen.
Finally, we visited Edmonton Jewish Cemetery where, as Dad and I walked, we talked about family. We took wrong turnings, meandering, happy to be distracted by so many other fascinating graves as we searched among the higgledy-piggledy graves and the broken stones for someone very special. Eventually, we found her, we found Sheindel Leder, another great-great-great-grandma to me, known in my family as The Little Bubba.
“Here she is!” I called out.
It was as if she’d been waiting, as if she’d been expecting us. Sheindel was 108 years old when she died on 13 March, 1909. Her headstone says how deeply mourned she is by her sorrowing children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. I stood there just trying to grasp what her life must have been like, antisemitism so rife, so terrifying, she made that decision to leave her home and all she knew to embark on a long, long journey to join her son in England.
“Little Bubba,” I said quietly as I thought of my own kids. “You have great-great-great-great-grandchildren who also know you now.”
On that day, these distant relatives became close family members. Though I’d met just a small number on my father’s side, I came away deeply moved and contemplative, with a humbling sense of the power and the richness of lineage; that our lives are easier due to the lives led by those who went before. That we are here at all is because of them.
Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote: “The dead don’t go anywhere. They’re all here. Each man is a cemetery. An actual cemetery, in which lie all our grandmothers and grandfathers, the father and mother, the wife, the child. Everyone is here all the time.”
It’s so important that we remember to ask the generations above us for their memories, for what they know, so that we in turn have these precious, vital facts to pass down, to set in stone. These are the stories which are real stories. I make my stories up, I don’t know where my ideas come from — but I do know where I come from and I’m proud, I’m grateful.
The Unfinished Business of Eadie Brown is published by Welbeck