Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 9, 2018

The Children’s House (2018), by Alice Nelson

The Children’s House is Alice Nelson’s third book: her first was a novel called The Last Sky (2008), which was followed by After This: Survivors of The Holocaust Speak (2015).  I haven’t read The Last Sky, but based on its blurb and my reading of After This, (see my review) it seems to me that Nelson is drawn to the melancholy.  She writes about exile, displacement, abandonment, loss and survival.

Just as After This chronicled the hope and healing of Holocaust survivors, The Children’s House concludes on an optimistic note.  But what lies at the heart of the novel is the contrast between the helping professions and the power of love.  The story is peopled by damaged characters: two children raised in the impersonal world of an Israeli kibbutz and then by a mother too remote to offer love; a boy scarred by his mother’s abandonment when new love took her to the other side of the Atlantic; a Rwandan refugee traumatised by rape and her sad little boy; and an elderly nun uprooted from her community as she cares for the other nuns dying around her.  The unexpected irony of the characterisation is that one of the central characters is a child psychotherapist, specialising in traumatised children.  Jacob is a good man —good-hearted as his mother says— an exiled prince who had succumbed to living in Harlem only because his wife wanted it, and a man who spends long hours helping children whose lives have run aground in some way or another.  And yet, when his wife Marina is drawn into a relationship with refugees Constance and little Gabriel, Jacob discourages it.  His care and concern is compartmentalised into working hours, and he has no faith in the power of love for healing.

Marina, who is childless after a decade of marriage, is an historian.  She has written a successful book about the Romany, and is researching for a new book on Hasidic Jewry.  She and Jacob have a quiet but loving marriage, depicted in lyrical detail.  Marina, adrift after the death of her only brother and the disappearance of her mother, has been welcomed into the orbit of Jacob’s family: she has affectionate bonds with her mother-in-law Rose and Jacob’s sister Leah.  Though she has no religion, the rituals of the Friday night family Shabbat ground her and they come together as a family at Christmas too.  Everyone in that family accepts the presence of the implacably silent, withdrawn Constance and the unloved little boy, except for Jacob, who gravely tells Marina that she will damage him and that she is meeting her own needs, not the child’s.

This conflict between the protagonists is muted, and indeed the resolution of the novel strays towards implausibility because the intrusion of a child into anyone’s quiet routine requires considerable adjustment which is not addressed.  Questions of adopting children out of their culture and community are not addressed either.  It is as if Marina’s quiet stubbornness and Jacob’s willingness to please can resolve all problems, even the way she has deceived him about the extent of her relationship with the mother and child.  When Marina first comes across Constance, she does not even tell Jacob that she paid for the groceries that Constance has no money to buy.  She keeps quiet about visiting Constance’s home in the projects because of his middle-class anxiety about her safety.  While the child is ever present in Constance’s bleak life, and she bathes and feeds him, she does not ever comfort him if he is crying, and Marina does not ever explain to Jacob about the rush of love she feels when Gabriel turns to her for comfort instead of his mother.  Her other interventions—a trip to the bureaucracy in charge of welfare services so inept that they communicate with an illiterate woman by letter; purchases of shoes and warm coats; visits to the museum and the zoo; and even the establishment of Marina as daily child care— all this is kept from Jacob because of his professional disapproval. Were it not all prompted by love of this pitiful child, this secretive behaviour would seem like a betrayal analogous to adultery.

There are strong parallels between Gabriel and his mother incapable of love, and Marina and her mother, displaced from home and family by the kindertransport that saved her from the Holocaust.  Leah, who is a passionate advocate for refugees, tries to enlist Constance in services designed to help her recover after trauma, but Constance is too devastated by a history that remains unknown.  She is an enigma, a survivor of unimaginable atrocities that remain forever indescribable.  Marina reads up on the Rwandan genocide, but she is no wiser because of the implacable silence of Constance.   Just as her own mother is unknowable, so is Gabriel’s.  Nelson’s novel is insistent that some trauma defies all efforts to rescue a damaged soul, and that damage is intergenerational.

All this sounds melancholy, and indeed it is, and yet it is beautiful to read.  The reader becomes drawn into the lives of these characters, and their predicaments linger after the last page.  They seem real, because they are, created by a sensitive imagination from the world of displaced people trying to make their way in the world, and sometimes giving up on it.  The setting is New York, but it could just as easily have been Melbourne, London, Paris or Berlin.  We are living through a time of displacement unlike any other as millions of refugees seek new lives in western democracies.  I think Nelson is trying to tell us with this novel that it is not enough to leave support to the professional agencies.  The children of these damaged people need love, more than anything else.

Theresa Smith reviewed this book too.

Author: Alice Nelson
Title: The Children’s House
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House Australia), 2018, 295 pages
ISBN: 9780143791188
Source: Kingston Library


  1. I enjoyed this review. It makes me want to read the novel all over again!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There are children everywhere who need love, juvenile crime facilities are full of them. The problem is so big that, good as individual actions are, they can never be enough. And as you imply, bringing up a child out of its own culture has its own problems. But until we insist on leaders who govern for society instead of for their donors, these problems will not even be addressed let alone solved.


    • The thing is, that there are so many places where governance has gone so astray, the refugee problem is out of control. All those traumatised people, and we don’t know how to help them with their psychological problems, even if we did have the resources to do it. I mean really, what kind of counselling could help a survivor of Rwanda? or the Cambodian killing fields?


  3. […] The Children’s House, by Alice Nelson […]


  4. […] Shell (Kristina Olsson, Scribner), see my review The Children’s House (Alice Nelson, Vintage), see my review The Shepherd’s Hut (Tim Winton, Hamish Hamilton), see Theresa’s review at Theresa Smith […]


  5. […] The Children’s House, Alice Nelson (Vintage), see my review […]


  6. […] Shell (Kristina Olsson, Scribner), see my review The Children’s House (Alice Nelson, Vintage), see my review The Shepherd’s Hut (Tim Winton, Hamish Hamilton), see Theresa’s review at Theresa Smith […]


  7. […] The Children’s House by Alice Nelson (see my review) […]


  8. […] The Children’s House by Alice Nelson, see my review The lives of two very different families converge in New York in the late 1990s. This is a […]


  9. […] 2006: Alice Nelson, In Arcadia, see my review of After This and The Children’s House […]


  10. […] The Children’s House […]


  11. […] 2006: Alice Nelson, In Arcadia, see my review of After This and The Children’s House […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: