In a story that exposes the falseness of innocence but also a deeper truth,
Harding's deaf, damaged hero contrasts with the bitter weariness of his older self. As "frail as a fallen bird", he comes to the sooty, bitter Eastern European city of Iasi, selecting the streets at random. Hollow with fatigue, he tries to fight the cough
rising within which will no doubt hurt him, perhaps even kill him.
Although I found Harding’s novel at times a bit tedious, she excels in bringing an earthly human need to her bleak period setting, exposing a timeless classical stature as her unnamed narrator collapses onto the steps of the Iasi hospital. The nurse not does even attempt to ask him who he is as he lies feverish and moaning. While ward sister Adriana completes the details on his admission as best she can (naming him Ioan after her
lost son), fellow nurse Safta gently begins to heal the man; only she knows his true identity.
Harding’s use of both Safta and Ioan's retrospective narrative lends flexibility to the tale's recollections and timelines in a way that allows her to introduce Ioan's delicate artistry. She imagines the blackness of a deaf man in a world that exists only by touch and smell as Ioan awakens to the hospital ward with its hollow faces, odor of disinfectant and illness. Suddenly
he remembers the isolated country manor of Poiana, a bucolic place where he was called Augustin.
Augustin has fond recollections of his childhood friend, Safta. Safta's mother and Poona’s matriarch, Marina Valeanu, sees something in Augustin: his muteness
and enigmatic eyes, the fine baby smoothness of his face. Marina is most impressed by Augustin's special talent for drawing; he even brings to mind the image of her own lost first son.
For Clare, the English tutor brought to Poiana by Safta's father, Constantin Valeau, there’s
certainly something about Augustin that distinguishes him from all the other boys. Giving his solidly detailed drawings as much attention as he gives hers, Clare acknowledges
that something special lies in his work.
The duality of relations at the heart of the story hints at the dilemmas of an entire world under siege. The summer of 1939 brings war and change. Safta falls in love, and Harding allows us to finally witness the privileged, cultured life she gives up in order to follow her heart.
Like many women, Safta has been liberated from the mores of the prewar period.
Now, having embraced the path of danger, she is unsure how to navigate it. For his part, Augustin is in a state of stasis, directionless and empty. Both represent lives bereft as they crawl though this new and treacherous Soviet existence.
Augustin’s journey is toward taking stock of who he is while struggling to find order and perspective in this silent, dislocated landscape. Unfolding his inner thoughts, Harding’s imagery is strong and wonderfully intertwined.
Her skilled prose lets us see life through the eyes of Augustin as he stands on the precipice of adulthood while still living within a
world of childhood fantasies. Undoubtedly aware, Augustin often does not understand the machinations of the adults around him.
Deception and innocence are overlaid with powerful visual metaphors: faceless drawings, scrapes of fabric, and Augustin's cutout figures. From a brittle and tarnished place that seems doomed to fail, the novel gives us a sense of past history and of home, of a life lived privately in a silent, interior space.