Title: The Children’s House
Author: Alice Nelson
Published: October 1st 2018
Publisher: Vintage – Penguin Books Australia
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: 4.5 stars
A love song to the idea of families in all their mysteries and complexities, their different configurations and the hope that creates them.
Marina and her husband, Jacob, were each born on a kibbutz in Israel. They meet years later at a university in California, when Jacob is a successful psychiatrist with a young son, Ben, from a disastrous marriage. The family moves to a brownstone in Harlem, formerly a convent inhabited by elderly nuns.
Outside the house one day Marina encounters Constance, a young refugee from Rwanda, and her toddler, Gabriel. Unmoored and devastated, Constance and Gabriel quickly come to depend on Marina; and her bond with the little boy intensifies. The pure, blinding love that it is possible to feel for children not our own is the thread that weaves through The Children’s House.
When Marina learns some disturbing news about her long-disappeared mother, Gizela, she leaves New York in search of the loose ends of her life. As Christmas nears, her tight-knit, loving family, along with Constance and Gabriel, join Marina in her mother’s former home, with a startling consequence, an act that will transform all of their lives forever.
Alice Nelson skilfully weaves together these shared stories about the terrible things humans are capable of into a beautifully told, hope-filled novel exploring the profound consolations that we can find in each other.
It was an absolute pleasure to be introduced to the graceful storytelling of Alice Nelson. Her latest work of art, The Children’s House, is a touching rendition to the world of family, parenting, motherhood, connection and identity. This is a rousing tale that will refuse to leave you, despite the final page being turned over. In its own unique way, The Children’s House has so much to say about loss, trauma and love.
It was the title that first caught my eye when I requested The Children’s House to read and review. The title of the book holds much importance to the main characters of the book, Marina and Jacob. Both were raised in Israel, in a kibbutz arrangement. I haven’t heard this term thrown around since my high school sociology classes, which is where I was first introduced to this way of living. In a kibbutz, the children are cared for by the community, rather than their parents and siblings, in the idea that the child will eventually become a strong citizen of Israel. In The Children’s House, we meet kibbutz raised Marina and Jacob after they have moved to the US, settling in Harlem, where both hold successful jobs. Together, Jacob and Marina raise Jacob’s son Ben. One day in the eclectic Harlem, Marina has a fateful encounter with a young Rwandan mother, Constance and her son Gabriel. This marks the start of a powerful bond between the two very different women. This intense friendship serves to remind of us of how blood is not always the defining factor in gaining a sense of family. Alongside this touching narrative is a side story involving Marina’s background, her absent mother and some loose ends she must make amends with. Friendship, support and acceptance lead the way in this stirring tale.
One of Australian most respected novelists has provided a cover quote for The Children’s House, Brenda Walker states, ‘A full and wise creation of love and character by an expert storyteller’. I have to concur, this is a perfect statement to describe Alice Nelson’s latest labour of love. What struck me first about this book was not just the ambitious setting and principal subject matter, but the refined language. I did have to stop myself hurtling through this one at the top speed I normally read book. The Children’s House is a book set to a much slower beat. Once you have a handle on the rhythm, the experience is marvellous. The words, poetic and drifting, will resonate, even after you have put the book down. It is rare to find such an accomplished young writer, but Alice Nelson is a force to be reckoned with.
Some would say The Children’s House does deal with some dark themes and it does exude a certain sense of melancholy. However, it is juxtaposed by the messages of hope, acceptance and diversity. The book itself encompasses a wide range of narrative voices, alongside the main narrator Marina. This is a colourful tapestry of voices, each vibrant and begging to be heard. Nelson is an expert storyteller, weaving herself in and out of these stories. There is less focus on dialogue in this novel, which I found to be a refreshing change. This allows The Children’s House to focus much more on the important people and their various strenuous back stories. I enjoyed this different approach very much.
Nelson has cast a great lead in Marina. She reminds us of the positive aspects of humanity. She is understanding, accepting, full of love and the way she extends the hand of friendship to Constance, the Rwandan woman she meets by chance, was restorative. Likewise, Constance was a fully realised character. The character of Constance was vital to drawing my attention to the Rwandan genocide, which is sadly an area that I am largely ignorant about. Thanks to The Children’s House, I feel much better educated and aware of the Rwandan genocide, including its awful after effects. Although Alice Nelson is an Australian based writer, The Children’s House has a strong international flavour. This novel also expertly ties in the practices and customs of Marina, Jacob and their family who hail from Israel.
The sense of place is deeply realised is The Children’s House. I felt it immediately and I felt like I was walking the footpaths of Harlem, just like Marina. Nelson works hard to draw our awareness as a reader to her New York setting. Nelson engages all your senses as she describes the sights, sounds, smells and general happenings of day-to-day life in Harlem. A plane ticket to the US was certainly not needed, once I settled into the capable storytelling hands of Alice Nelson.
There are so many themes touched on by Alice Nelson in her remarkable new novel. The Children’s House offers a rich examination into kinship, motherhood, parentage, family, estrangement, abandonment, friendship and how we deal with extreme trauma. No matter the theme or journey covered, Alice Nelson aims to do this with insight and understated finesse. I feel grateful that I had the chance to explore the beauty The Children’s House has to offer, simply through its gentle commentary on the human spirit.
The Children’s House sets Alice Nelson apart as an author with a rare talent, who is able to compose a story that is deeply affective and representative of the complexities human nature. The Children’s House comes highly recommend and I am looking forward to meeting Alice Nelson next year at an author event in Perth.
The Children’s House by Alice Nelson was published on 1st October 2018 by Vintage – Penguin Books Australia. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
Learn more about the author of The Children’s House, Alice Nelson, here.
*I wish to thank Penguin Books Australia for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.
The Children’s House, is book #136 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge