The young woman says Hannah like hand, with an h bold and blowing, just like that, and an a flat, like a marsh. Hannah is used to this, but privately she thinks of her name as having an H only when you write it. When you say Hannah, the word should open up at first, with no h at all, just a lovely “Ah!” and then another one. “Ahnah!” with more fullness to the second “ah”. How to tell the young woman this?
Hannah Pearl feels words slipping away from her, people to be other than who they really are, and, in her confusion, she often reverts now to her childhood French language. People talk faster than she can process and move on without waiting for her to answer. She watches their faces to determine what they want. If they are friendly, perhaps they only require a smile from her; this she can do easily. If they seem angry or unfriendly, impatient, she wonders if she can trust them. She knows from her childhood that not only the people in uniforms can be dangerous, but sometimes ordinary people, neighbours, cannot be trusted. They whisper and inform.
Hannah was born in Rouen, France, and her parents sent her to friends in England in 1940 with the promise that they would follow. But they were French Jews and a neighbour wrote to her that they were all taken away. Her little sister Emma had pneumonia and couldn’t come. They were all lost. All died in camps — her maman, papa, her grand-méres, her cousins — all gone. And then her lover/soon-to-be husband Russell Pearl, killed just after the war and only weeks before their wedding, leaving Hannah alone to have her little baby girl, Mir, to come to America, and to begin again.
Now, three generations of women, are trying to understand their history, to hang on to their love and knowledge of each other. Hannah’s granddaughter Ida, the “fiery” one, wants to know, to understand, but perhaps it’s already too late. Her sister and mother have always discouraged her from asking her grandmother questions about the past, the war, her grandfather, and now the answers are slipping away with Hannah’s confusion. As a child, Ida used to look at the poems and photographs in her grandmother’s bottom dresser drawer. Her sister, Fiona, Ida would be surprised to learn, always pretended disinterest but watched closely and listened to all the discussions. She doesn’t understand the poetry but yearns to understand, to be openly curious, to be more like her sister.
This is a tender story, written with great insight and palpable love, peeling back the layers of loss and vulnerability, questioning whether the religious hatred is gone or just barely suppressed below the surface. It is an attempt to learn to deal with ghostly loss in the midst of life.
[Mir] had not known before how slowly someone could disappear, just a little bit at a time, and then a day comes and you discover that it isn’t even as simple as this, that it’s you who’s vanished from this beloved person’s sight, as if the earth opened and swallowed you up. You haven’t gone anywhere; you’re still right here; it’s just that you’re invisible.
A family trying to stay together in the present when the past pulls poignantly and insistently, trying to find a knowing. A compelling story past and present beautifully woven together that can’t be put down until the final page is turned. * * * * *