On the surface, Agata has a perfect family living in London: husband, Richard, daughter, Lily, and her own mother, on a lengthy visit from Prague where Agata grew up. However, that doesn’t explain the nightly tears and the web of secrets between mother and daughter. Agata hides her regular hospital trips for tests in case the cancer her mother survived show up in her own body. She’s not yet begun to think about whether Lily might also inherit the cancer-related genes. Her mother has other family-related secrets. Agata has grown up believing that her mother was the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust. Here the horrors are hinted at but not explicit: the past, Agata’s mother believes, belongs in the past and it is not spoken of.
Agata’s therapist tries to get her to loosen the guilt she feels. Agata can’t explain why she feels it until she discovers a leaflet for a meeting on “The Impact of the Holocaust on the Second Generation”. Her mother asked who the second generation are. Agata suggests people like her: born to survivors. Her mother responds, “But nothing happened to your generation, Gatushka, you were born after it was all over.”
The lecture suggests otherwise. Agata recalls as a ten-year-old a boy at school calling her “a shitty Jew” and how when she told her parents, “I felt their fear. It sat with us in the room. My parents, they never told me about the Menorah or Passover, nothing like that, but in that moment, I understood I now belonged in that heap of scary matchstick people I saw once in a book.” This becomes another secret from her mother as Agata starts meeting Klaus, who she assumes to be another of this second generation. Klaus explains how he felt he could never complain, never let on he was in a bad mood or upset over something because he knew his parents had had it worse. There was an unspoken pressure for him to always appear happy.
Agata’s mother lets slip that there were cousins, a brother and sister, who had been sent to England as war broke out, a branch of family who’d escaped the concentration camps. Agata wants to track them down. Agata’s mother refuses to cooperate and tells Agata she’s being silly, she has her family, there’s no need to trace relatives. But Agata feels something’s missing. Richard half-heartedly agrees with his mother-in-law. His contact with his own family is the exchange of Christmas cards and perhaps an occasional visit. Agata finds one of the cousins, the sister. Her visit to them is polite and conversation strained. Not the happy reunion Agata was hoping for. In her eagerness for connection, she overlooks that she might be bringing up memories deliberately buried. She begins a journal detailing her efforts and starts to draw a family tree. The cousin dodges the question on where her brother is, except to say he changed his name. Agata turns sleuth, trying to fill in more names. A trip to Prague to visit her mother, who has returned home, enables Agata to find some photographs, including one of Annette, her mother’s younger sister whom Agata was told had died in a concentration camp. However, when they visit a Holocaust Memorial, Annette’s name is not there. Agata’s mother whisks her away before Agata can ask why.
Agata’s daughter, Lily, reacts badly to Agata’s attempts to trace relatives. Lily, like Richard and her grandmother, thinks they are family enough and she doesn’t want to be roped into visits from people she’s never seen before and accuses her mother of upending her life. Part of it is pre-teen lashing out, but she also has a point. What is family? The people who we’ve chosen to be with or names on a tree? Through Richard, Agata discovers her mother has been thwarting her attempts to trace family. It was at her mother’s suggestion that the cousin failed to pass on her brother’s name and now refuses to see Agata, citing illness.
Agata is now forced to think about what she is doing. Is it worth tearing her family apart to find relatives she’s never met and has had nothing to do with? Are her dreams of a happy wider family realistic or is it better to let go and focus on the family she does know? How does she feel about being lied to that her relatives were dead when some of them survived? How does that affect the familial relationships she has? Uncovering secrets can be harmful or helpful, was Agata right to strike out on her own or should she have left well alone? It is possible to be sympathetic to her efforts while also wanting to give her head a wobble as she risks the family she already has.
Richard is very much the easy-going Englishman content with his lot and baffled at Agata’s obsessive search for relatives. He doesn’t obstruct her to start with but when Agata starts inviting her mother’s cousin to their house, he chafes. This is the point where he contacts his mother-in-law behind his wife’s back to put the brakes on Agata’s sleuthing. Lily’s a typical pre-teen, finds parents embarrassing, adores her grandmother and tolerates Agata’s efforts until Lily realises her grandmother doesn’t back what her mother is doing and becomes scared of losing touch with her grandmother. Grandmother is simply doing what she feels best. That some things shouldn’t be talked about and she fears Agata will bring things to the surface that are best left buried.
There’s a final twist that could irrevokably change Agata’s life forever or she could decide to carry on living with the protective lies woven around her. “In the Blood” is a compelling tale of inherited trauma, the damage of not knowing the truth about your own family and whether lies told with the intention to protect do more harm than good. The questions raised by Anna Fodorova’s skilfully drawn characters linger beyond the end of the book.
“In the Blood” is available from Arachne Press.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.
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