Book review: Reparation

Madeleine Kingsley enjoys a debut about a mother -daughter replationship


Reparation By Gaby Koppel
Honno, £8.99

‘It sounds like a script by Roman Polanski,” says TV crime journalist Elizabeth of her life. Aranca, her mother (mutti) an elderly Hungarian-born alcoholic and nicotine addict has just announced an indefinite stay in her daughter’s London flat. “Let’s just hope,” Elizabeth adds drily, “neither of us meets a sticky end by way of the rear balcony.”

Elizabeth’s mutti should by rights be at home in Wales with her long-suffering husband. But the elderly pair have hit the financial buffers and Aranca is belatedly bent on claiming war compensation from the Hungarian government to prop up their precarious finances.

In this debut novel, Gaby Koppel could have settled for a darkly comic study of a Jewish mother’s relationship with a singleton she has gripped in “a psychological half-nelson”. The year is 1997 and Aranca seems a troublesome Magyar Maenad scented with Madame Rochas. She’s just been thrown, drunk, off the flight to Ibiza where she was heading to sell the holiday home.

She went AWOL at the airport. She’s poisoned her brother-in-law Bernie’s big birthday lunch with an unsolicited speech that outed his shtupping of the cleaning lady while his wonderful wife died of cancer. And she swallows sleeping pills with a bottle of vodka.

All this would try the patience of the most gemutlich daughter, and Elizabeth is anything but — she’s an assimilated, stressed-out, spiky, career woman. Their unspoken common ground is doubt about Elizabeth’s fiancé Dave, the latest in a string of unsuitable boyfriends. He’s a non-Jewish, arty, freelance photographer quite devoid of the materialistic gene. Yet, when all is said and done, he could be a possible progenitor, at last, of grandchildren.

What raises Reparation above and beyond a clash-of-generations character novel is that both mother and daughter are also grand-scale seekers of justice: A little girl has been murdered in Stamford Hill, where the Charedi community seeks to close ranks against investigating outsiders.

Playing upon the Jewishness she more usually disregards, Elizabeth wins over a rabbi and sleuths her way to the heart of this tragedy. To the heart also of the Strictly Orthodox mother whose bitter loss would, historically, remain invisible to the wider world, but who Elizabeth now persuades to open up on TV.

She’s a campaigning warrior for answers: could the killer come from within? Might his crime be covered up with a hasty air ticket to anonymity in America?

While Elizabeth is thus distracted, Aranca sets off in her own fight-and-flight mode, deeming it time to reveal her own, wartime, wounds.

Unsurprisingly, with her track record, she gets herself arrested at Budapest airport. Rushing to retrieve Mutti, Elizabeth is caught up in a voyage to the past which illuminates the present — the mystery of Aranca’s pain and the source of her long-term volatility.

Reparation is an ambitious, crisply chronicled story of little girls lost across separate time zones. It deals with challenge, change and personal growth.

Koppel weaves together themes of criminal concealment, culpability too close to home, and restitution that can never truly atone for the losses incurred. To suggest that, at times, this novel is almost too busy would be to cavil: if reprised in further fiction, Elizabeth has the makings of a cool, home-grown, V. I. Warshawski.


Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance writer

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