Book review: Connective Tissue, by Eleanor Thom

This book is clearly a labour of love, but it also raises some complex questions concerning the ethics of writing fiction about real people, writes Stuart Kelly

Credit where credit is due, in the afterword to Connective Tissue Eleanor Thom is candid about how problematic the form of her book is. Thom has bee “researching my grandmother’s early life for over a decade and interviewing those who knew her”. The opening of the book states “this story is for my grandmother and her family members”. But, to return to the afterword, she acknowledges that “however hard I tried to be accurate, I knew that imagination, my vastly different life experience, and my personal interpretation of history would interfere with my telling of Dora’s story. The line between fiction and non-fiction is an ethical tightrope”. Therefore she “decided to write Connective Tissue as fiction because of everything I will never know”.

Honest, yes, but this is still a two-edged sword, particularly when half the novel is about Jewish life in Berlin in the 1930s and subsequently as a refugee in London. The dedicatory page tolls the names of family members who did not escape and died in Auschwitz, Riga, Minsk and Zasavica, and the names will appear within the fiction. I suppose the book might be considered a kind of autofiction (not a term I especially like). But it is a thorny question: if it were pure fiction “based on” the reader would never wonder “Well, did it snow that day in 1938? Was it a Stoewer Sedina Cabriolet?” When dealing with the horrors of the Nazi regime, anything that introduces a note of scepticism worries me a great deal.

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The other part of this diptych concerns Helena – who is categorically not Eleanor, though the acoustic similarity is conspicuous. She is in hospital, pregnant, and under observation because of uterine fibroid tumours (whether intra, extra or sub mucosal, they are like “monstrous Christmas baubles”). She knits, chats and there are some subplots, one involving the state taking away a child, a kind of narrative rhyme, and when we get to the Caesarean, Helena has a vision of her grandmother Dora Tannenbaum (rhyming on Christmas again), knitting and smoking Woodbines. Both the knitting and the fibroids are variations on connective tissue. After the birth, it transpires that Helena’s son, Ash, has developmental difficulties and nobody can diagnose the problem with certainty, although most people say he was just a bit squashed by the tumours. In the afterword, Thom mentions that her daughter was “born with a disability for which no cause could be found”.

Eleanor ThomEleanor Thom
Eleanor Thom

Helena has a professional job as an air traffic controller. Dora is a domestic servant, and much of the best material in the book is about working-class Jewish life. The stereotype of people being stripped on their sables and emeralds before being put on the train actually plays into antisemitic tropes. Dora is also pregnant, having been seduced by a caddish individual, and also seems to have uterine fibroid tumours. Again the niggle: well did she? Or is this a convenient metaphor?

Having refused genetic tests, Helena falls back on genealogical investigation, as if there might be a skein from Dora that explains Ash. So the novel wends its way to a sort of closure. Helena’s chapters are written in the first person; Dora’s in the third: this is becoming a fairly common device, and not presuming to wholly inhabit Dora’s consciousness was probably a wise move. The prose is mostly unobtrusive except for moments of clutter. Helena’s hospital breakfast comprises “film wrapped croissant, state-controlled portion of marmalade with two grams of butter, yoghurt pot and fruit juice carton”. An incident in a 24-hour supermarket is glossed, “There’s a café and a pharmacy, and a glasses place and a photograph shop, a post office, and a place next to the kiddy ride-ons where old ladies tie up their doggies”. When Dora is in London we get the most elaborate description of a cream slice, which, in case you are unaware is “two layers of pastry with a slab of whipped cream in between, and a shining iced top with chocolate marbling”. These are not cardinal sins, but they do have a distracting tang to them.

There are points where I wondered if this might not have actually been a rather good short story collection. The way Helena describes her work is done with intelligence, and I would rather have liked more of it. Vignettes of Dora’s life might have been more focused than what we have. For example, there is a scene where her father’s clockhands – he is a horologist – fall on the floor and between the floorboards, which is perfect in and of itself.

This book is clearly a labour of love, and it is not a bad book. It is a tad overlong, and it does not resolve the conundrum around the ethics of writing about people who did once live and breathe and have their being. It is readable, but I cannot imagine I will re-read it.

Connective Tissue, by Eleanor Thom, Taproot Press, £11.99

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