March, 1945. The ravaged face of London will soon be painted with victory, but for Sylvie the private battle for peace is only just beginning. Revealing strength and small acts of kindness in the most unlikely places, A Small Dark Quiet looks through the eyes of a mother as she finds the courage to face loss - both her own, and that of the orphan born in a concentration camp whom she and her husband, Gerald, adopt two years later.
Haunted by the gaps in the orphan's history, Sylvie begins to draw him into parallel with her dead child. When she gives the orphan the stillborn child's name, Arthur, she unwittingly entangles him in a grief he will never be able to console. His name has been erased, his origins merely guessed at, but the trauma Arthur carries begins to release itself in nightmares, merging into the story he has been told about the dead child whose life he is expected to step into.
Having internalized the sense that he is an imposter, Arthur's yearning for a place where he might be accepted is echoed in our own time. Striking, too, are the resonances that can be felt through Arthur's journey as the novel unfolds over the next twenty years: the past he can neither recall nor forget lives on within him even as he strives to forge a life for himself. Identity and belonging may be elusive, but the pulse of survival insists he keeps searching and, as he opens himself to the world around him, there are flashes of just how resilient the human heart can be.
As part of this process, Arthur comes to understand that he is Jewish, yet he fears what this might entail - could this be an identity or will it only make him more of an outsider? He's threatened with being sent back where he belongs - but no one can tell him where this is; he learns all about `that other little Arthur', yearning both to become him and to free himself from his ghost. He can neither fit the shape of the life that has been lost nor grow into the one his adopted father has carved out for him.
Supposedly at work, Arthur spends his days in the park, consumed by a sense of fraudulence and irrelevance. When he first sees Lydia she is with twin girls who he mistakenly assumes are her children. He soon imagines himself taking this single mother and her girls in, a fantasy Lydia elaborates even as she tells him she is not their mother. As Lydia draws Arthur into her surreal world, she coaxes him into telling her about Sylvie and that `other little Arthur' and soon begins to imitate Sylvie's past behavior, binding herself to her story and to Arthur. Meeting Lydia had seemed to offer the opportunity for Arthur to recast himself. Yet he finds he is soon trapped into a repetition of what he was trying to escape: Sylvie's pain finds a distorted mirror in Lydia and he can no more be the Arthur Lydia wants him to be than the Arthur Sylvie or Gerald wanted.
Through Sylvie's unprocessed grief and Arthur's acute sense of displacement, A Small Dark Quiet explores how the compulsion to fill the empty space that death leaves can, ultimately, only make the sense of such a devastating void more acute. Yet the search to belong and the instinct to love and connect persists in this story of loss, migration and the ways in which we find ourselves caught between the need to feel safe and the will to be free