Set in 1997, Elizabeth is a television journalist living in London. From the beginning she has problems. Her rather eccentric mother, who is an alcoholic, has gone missing. Her parents, Hungarian emigres, live in Cardiff. Their chaotic lifestyle and demands on her time cause her concern and form one strand of this story.
When a child disappears from a north London Hasidic community Elizabeth sees the chance for a story and is drawn into the investigation. Although Jewish herself she has to an extent rejected this part of her upbringing and finds this world, so closed, fascinating. It also gives the reader an insight into a different insular world and what it means to be Jewish.
When Elizabeth’s father dies suddenly her mother becomes even more obsessed with her past life in wartime Hungary. Her family had been wealthy, and she wants compensation. A crisis arises when Mutti is arrested in Budapest and Elizabeth has to go and rescue her. They revisit places her mother remembers and unravel the clues to the past. Restitution of what belongs to her comes after a struggle.
This was an intriguing story with many threads. The characters are credible, real life people, and the reader is drawn in from the start. The prologue, set in Budapest 1944, gives a flavour of one aspect in this complex weaving of stories, but it is Elizabeth and her battle to deal with the different demands on her life who draws us in. As she struggles to juggle her job, boyfriend and eccentric mother we are desperate for her to have some oasis of calm in a chaotic life. Elizabeth’s frustration with her mother was reminiscent of Helen in Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. The mixture of love, exasperation, despair and determination apparent in the interaction between the two characters.
Despite the dark themes this is not a story that dictates or tries to point out injustices in the world. In fact, there is much humour in the skilful way it is told. Knowledge about the communities she is writing about is apparent in Koppel’s work and this is both a thought-provoking and proficient piece of writing.
It is also an enjoyable read; interesting, informative, absorbing and, at times, amusing.
Reparation is published by Honno. This is Gaby Koppel’s debut novel and runner-up in 2020 for the Paul Torday Memorial Prize, for debut novelists over 60.