Lilian Nattel, the acclaimed author of The River Midnight, masterfully brings to life a vanished world--the lanes boiling with the steam from kettles of laundry, the smokestacks belching coal dust, the chatter of tailors, piemen, and thieves. This is where Nehama arrives with her dreams of independence, not realizing the dangers that a girl on her own must face. Tricked into prostitution, she escapes into the alleys of the East End, where bustling market stalls and penny seats at the theater are just a second away from the criminal warrens. In the Jewish ghetto Nehama makes a new life, remembering the lessons of the street to help another runaway, Emilia, pregnant and unwed. But Emilia refuses to live a hard life and, relinquishing her baby to Nehama, she re-creates herself in the chic streets of the West End. With stunningly vivid prose Nattel intertwines the stories of these two women, writing of the chaos of this rich city life, and beautifully rendering the courage of mothers and sisters navigating dangerous realms.
Two determined Jewish runaways strive for better lives in chaotic turn-of-the-century London in Nattel's rich and lovingly written second novel (after 1999's The River Midnight). Seventeen-year-old Nehama, who arrives from Poland in 1875, is quickly tricked into prostitution and brutalized by her boss, the squire. She escapes that sordid life which Nattel unflinchingly, chillingly portrays when she's taken in by a young couple in Frying Pan Alley. She becomes a skilled seamstress and eventually marries a kind tailor who knows little of her past. In 1886, Emilia, privileged but pregnant and unwed, flees her cruel father and weak mother back in Minsk. Nehama's and Emilia's paths converge when Nehama prevents the ruthless brothel owner who enslaved her from doing the same to Emilia. Emilia, who's posing as a widow, lodges with Nehama, but soon breaks under the drudgery of London's ghetto life. Leaving her newborn daughter with Nehama, who is unable to bear children after two miscarriages, Emilia decamps to London's Soho, where she works as a shop girl and catches the eye of Jacob, a successful Jewish writer who thinks the "golden-haired and gray-eyed" Emilia is a gentile. Both women are haunted by the pasts they conceal from their men, and sometimes comforted by beneficent ghosts: into this story of struggle and assimilation, Nattel skillfully weaves the guardian spirits of Nehama's grandmother and Emilia's father's first wife. The pacing is leisurely, and the prose is lovely, leavened by subtle humor and infused with intelligence.