I finished this novel on the same morning that the Orange prize shortlist was announced. Would I have picked it for the top six, had I not already known it would be there? It’s hard to say because this is a deceptively simple novel written in a style of deceptive gentleness and serenity. But it is a story that stays with you, and which continues to blossom in the mind long after the experience of reading it is past.
It opens in a monochrome city in Communist Romania that still bears the scars of recent warfare. A thin young man struggles against exhaustion and malnutrition to make it to the steps of the hospital, where he is discovered by the early morning shift of nurses. Once admitted, the enigma deepens, as he carries no papers and is unable to speak. Adriana, a motherly middle-aged nurse realises that he is deaf and dumb and Safta, a much younger nurse, brings him paper and pencils in the hope of communicating with him. This is not just a random guess; Safta knows the young man although she will keep that secret to herself for the entirety of the narrative. He is Augustin, or Tinu, the illegitimate son of the cook at the country manor where Safta grew up. Safta and Tinu were born six months apart and grew up together, were even partly educated together when Safta’s mother had philanthropic hopes of overcoming Tinu’s disability. But Tinu is a strange mixture of porosity and resistance, locked away in his silent world. His real strengths lie with horses, with whom he has a natural affinity, and with drawing, by means of which he makes sense of and masters the world around him.
Together Safta and Adriana care for Tinu, and continue to look after him when he is discharged from the hospital. For Adriana he becomes a substitute for the son who remains missing after the war. For Safta he is a secret responsibility and a significant part of her past. What she does not realise is how significant he is, for Tinu did not end up at her hospital by chance. Instead it turns out that he made his way to her specifically in order to tell her a story he does not know how to tell, about a tragedy he experienced in the prison camps, concerning a young man whom Safta once loved.
The narrative slips seamlessly back and forth between the luxurious manor house at Poiana in the glory days when Safta and Tinu grew up there, and the wretched present in a city partly ruined by bombing and the brutal Communist division of property, whose people live side by side in suspicion and uncertainty. The two strands of the story move ever closer together: the narrative of the past catches up with the present in the atrocities of the war, and the narrative of the present recounts the return journey that Safta and Tinu make to Poiana in order to unravel the tale that Tinu must tell by means of his drawings. It’s an amazing achievement on Georgina Harding’s part that the tone of the writing remains unswervingly constant, its elegiac elegance never falters despite the dreadful events it must incorporate. But the ending, which I found immensely touching in its surprising neatness, seems to unite everything that happens, good and bad, in an unexpected moment of grace. That ending seemed to me to validate the serenity of the prose.
War stories are always faced with the problem of saying the unspeakable, of finding ways to describe, if not explain, the ghastly things man will do to man in times of crisis. It is a masterstroke of this novel to create a main character who is himself without words. A door opens in this narrative onto another kind of existence, one that hovers on the brink of the unimaginable, in the strange experience of deaf and dumb Tinu. Much of what happens to him arrives without a meaning, and so the passages where he must undergo the atrocities of war are immensely moving as they add extra poignancy to those incomprehensible cruelties. And yet, the absence of language also insulates Tinu in some way, makes him stronger, more resilient, even in his frailty. This is a subtle book and an immensely patient one; patient in the way the characters treat Tinu, patient in the attention Tinu brings to his life, patient in its philosophy of enduring grief, loss and misery in the awareness that everything passes. And the more I think about it, quite possibly a strong contender for the Orange prize.