From the acclaimed author of The River Midnight comes the story two emigrant women who change each other’s lives and, despite following separate paths, are united in their love of a child.
In 1875, Nehama arrives at St. Katharine’s Dock, having fled the expectations of her family in Poland. Planning to create a new life for herself and then send for her family to join her, she isn’t prepared for the reality of London’s East End, where only a block can separate the lively street markets from the dens of iniquity. Her dreams of independence falter when she is tricked into becoming a prostitute by a man called the Squire, who poses as a member of the Newcomers’ Assistance Committee. Brutalized and trapped, Nehama soon begins to lose hope, but when she becomes pregnant she realizes she must get away to save her child. With only the whispers of her late grandmother to guide her, she escapes and is taken in by a kind couple, who help her to re-create herself in the respectable immigrant community of the East End. There, despite a miscarriage, she begins to find a niche for herself as a seamstress and marries a tailor named Nathan. Sadly, however, she is unable to escape the pain of losing her baby and is haunted by the conviction that her sordid life in Dorset Street is to blame for her childlessness.
Emilia arrives in London in 1886, having fled from a life in Minsk that would have been considered privileged if it weren’t for her domineering and unpredictable father. Her dreams of living in an Italian villa with the mother she left behind have not prepared her for the rough life that faces Jewish immigrants in London. She is also pregnant, and it’s only Nehama’s intervention that saves her from the clutches of the Squire. But the struggles of life in the working-class Jewish neighborhood are not what she imagined for herself, and, leaving her baby with Nehama, she escapes to the wealthier streets of the city’s West End. There, she re-creates herself as a gentile and marries into a wealthy family, but cannot escape the memory of everything she has left behind.
Years pass as Nehama and Emilia follow their separate paths, each trying to ensure herself a successful future — Nehama dreams of opening a store of her own, Emilia plans to have another child. Yet each realizes that it is impossible to do so without coming to terms with the past. This is asking a lot of two women who have seen such sorrow of their own, and who also remember that of their mothers and grandmothers. But as they discover, the tests of the past, when seen from the present, are also proof of strength and faith. It is this reserve that both women draw on to make peace with their new lives, and in doing so, they arrive in places that hold some common ground.
With vivid prose and rich detail, Lilian Nattel weaves the lives of these two women not only together but into the tapestry of nineteenth-century London. Taking us into the streets and alleys of the East End, Nattel honours the spirit of the Jewish immigrant community and most of all the women who lived at its heart.