You will have gathered that my cousin, Gaby Koppel, has recently published her first novel Reparation Anyone interested in the very topical subject of starting a new life in a new country as a refugee, or anyone who simply enjoys the always fun plot of a ‘whodunnit’ should definitely buy and read this book.
As a thank you for putting me up for a whole week, while I attended a short interior design course at Juliettes Interiors on London’s Kings Road, I offered to redesign her living room. Years of working in high flying roles as a producer at the BBC, bringing up three children and writing a novel have definitely taken their toll.So, as tactfully as I could, I asked her if I could work on it as a focus for my course. She seemed delighted, but of course, the 64,000 dollar question is ‘did she actually like it?’ Ideas included: reinforcing the symmetry on either side of the fireplace; upholstering one bright blue sofa in a soft neutral and replacing another with two armchairs to go with the warmer, earthier colours I have selected to complement some of the very beautiful paintings that Gaby owns.The novel is a fascinating account of her mother’s life, my aunt of course, depicted above alongside a picture of my Dad, taken in happier times, interwoven with a period in her own life when she was working as a young television producer. It covers the fictional disappearance of a little girl from the Hassidic Jewish community in Stamford Hill, North London, the area where she now lives. Many elements are heartbreakingly true: her mother’s damaging childhood in a wealthy bourgeois Jewish family in pre-war Budapest, at the hands of her and my own father’s unaccountably cruel and unpleasant mother; the dangerous hideout they all undertook during the Nazi invasion and her escape to Britain where her, honestly, heartfelt attempts to create a loving and nurturing home for her own family were cruelly restricted by her battle with alcoholism. Our family did look into the compensation scheme offered by the Hungarian government to individuals who had had property taken from them during the communist take over and Gaby’s parents ‘live and let live’ attitude to her choices of partner, while at the same time, secretly desperate for her to meet a ‘nice Jewish boy’ are absolutely spot on.
However, I would like to clarify that some elements, such as the violent face offs my aunt undertakes with neo-nazis in Budapest in the 1990s and the discovery of our family chauffeur living happily ever after with the family paintings in his West Hampstead living room are pure fiction!
The novel twists and turns, weaving Gaby’s mother’s difficulties with her own challenges of the often vicious office politics of the BBC, uncertainty over her relationship with a lovely but slightly directionless photographer and a mysterious ‘whodunnit’ set against the backdrop of the impenetrable community of Hassidic jews in North London
You can read my interview with her below, both about her novel and her newly designed living room.
AG: Your mother truly loved cooking and welcoming people to her home and you have inherited her gift. Has writing about her helped to soothe some of your more painful memories and recognise how bonded you were in so many ways?
GK: It has, because I’ve thought about her a lot. Immediately after she died, I was still quite angry with her. We thought she had taken her own life – that was definitely what the police thought because she died at the kitchen table with a glass in front of her, and of course in that situation your feelings are in tremendous turmoil. We’d been through some difficult times since my father’s death six years before and it was difficult to remember the wonderful things about her. But trying to imagine her as a young girl, recreating her thoughts and feelings, helped me empathise with her much more. It’s given me distance, but also helped me remember that as you say she could be a marvelous, generous hostess, hugely charismatic and charming, and we were incredibly close.
AG: I know that you and your husband are much more active in your local synagogue that your own parents were. Do you feel your mother may have found valuable solace from her traumas by being more observant?
GK: No! My parents were avowed atheists or at the very least agnostic – though culturally they were the most Jewish people you could come across. My mum was such an individualist, and a maverick, she didn’t really go with the crowd when it came to religion or anything else. And her experiences during the war did put her off formal faiths of all kind. She was hidden by monks and nuns who extracted a heavy financial price – she felt that if they were truly pious and on the side of good they would want to save people’s lives without being paid. She also said that they were far from pure in matters sexual, and after seeing that she was a true sceptic all her life though we did belong to a synagogue. When I wanted to marry Steve it was almost the final straw as the synagogue organisation we now belong to – it’s the biggest mainstream orthodox synagogue in the UK – does demand certain paperwork to ‘prove’ that you are ‘halachically Jewish’ which means you must be able to show that you come from a Jewish family on your mother’s side if you want to marry. Of course, as my mother had fled Hungary with the few things she could carry, she didn’t bring her birth certificate and that turned out to be a problem. She was incandescent with rage because she felt she’d suffered so much during the war on account of being Jewish, that the ‘bloody rabbis’ wouldn’t let her get the benefits of it either – it must have felt like a no win situation.
AG: You happily live side by side with many local Hassidic families, yet comment openly in the book on some of their more puzzling choices, such as the crowded conditions they have to endure as such big families and the enforced premature independence of the children. What is your attitude to your intriguing neighbours?
GK: We absolutely love living in Stamford Hill, we love the eccentricities of life there – and I hope I have portrayed the community in an affectionate ‘warts and all’ kind of way. I wanted to show that Jews come in all shapes and sizes and degrees of faith, but in fact aside from that they are just like any other people. Brush away the mystique of the Hassidic or Haredi community being ‘insular’ which is really only true up to a point, and you have normal people – rich, poor, clever, funny, proud, humble – just like any other group of people anywhere. I’ve tried to show that some in the community have an air of innocence or unworldliness like the mother of the child who is murdered, but others like the rabbi are really citizens of the world. Because I’ve set it in 1997 it doesn’t come bang up to date, and I think attitudes are changing too – my husband was part of a team that made a wonderful documentary called ‘Canvey: The Promised Island’ about a group of Haredi families breaking away from Stamford Hill, and I think there will be more to say.
AG: The book has a happy ending, where things do fall into place for your mother. Sadly this was not the case in real life. You, on the other hand, both in real life and in the book do fall for the ‘nice Jewish boy’ do you feel this was an inevitability?
GK: It wasn’t inevitable but at a certain stage in life I realised that I wanted to settle down with somebody Jewish, and I wanted to have Jewish children. To an extent, I was on the look out for somebody Jewish, so when I met Steve, I think we both felt pretty quickly that was something we both wanted. By that stage neither of us were all that young any more, and we got on with it reasonably quickly – that was nearly 29 years ago.
AG: You hint in the book about an inherited lack of confidence you suffered when you were younger, do you feel you have resolved that?
GK: I don’t think you get over those things, you just learn to deal with them – and for me, I think Steve is a great sounding board when I have serious doubts. Actually I do wonder if it is inherited, as though my mum could sometimes appear loud and domineering, underneath it all she was just hiding the fact that she was cripplingly shy. The character of Aranca in my book has a drink problem just like my mum did and in both cases, they are looking for some Dutch courage to help them deal with life.
AG: Last but not least do you like any of my ideas for your living room?
GK: I love them! I’ve already had an offer on the piano – so I’m going to sell it and put Operation Alison into go mode.AG: I am absolutely thrilled and really hope that once the improvements are in place I can come and enjoy a slice of Gaby’s perfect Dobos Torte and not splodge any on her newly upholstered sofa!