Where to Find Me by Alba Arikha

Review published on September 24, 2018.

In the summer of 1939, just months before Britain and France declare war on Germany, nineteen-year-old Flore Baum is having the time of her life in Paris. A student at the Sorbonne who dreams of becoming a writer, she thinks she might just be in love with her first ever boyfriend, Jean, although it’s possible that it is really the illicit nature of the relationship that she is in love with – Jean has been warned to stay away from her, since he is the son of a wealthy French industrialist, while she is the Jewish daughter of a shopkeeper. When World War II breaks out, Flore’s fragile happiness is shattered, as she first loses her boyfriend, then her place in society and then, most painfully, her family. Forced to flee Paris and to go into hiding for the remainder of the war, Flore finds herself on a journey that will eventually take her to Palestine, to the realisation of the nature of true love, and to the brink of despair.

In the 1980s, a teenage Hannah Karalis lives with her family in Notting Hill. The family are well-to-do and heavily involved in London’s cultural scene. Hannah dreams of becoming a writer and, although her family life involves lots of material that would make for a good book, she finds herself drawn to her intriguing elderly neighbour, Flora Dobbs, the widow of a famous concert pianist. Hannah and Flora only interact a few times before Flora suddenly moves away from the street, but the older woman leaves a lasting impression on Hannah. Some nineteen years later, Hannah is surprised to learn that she has inherited a box of books from Flora, one of which is a notebook detailing Flora’s extraordinary past. Her interest in her former neighbour dramatically reignited, Hannah finds herself compelled to discover more about Flora’s life, which in turn leads her to confront the ghosts that lurk in both their pasts.

Where to Find Me, the fifth book by Alba Arikha, is the fascinating story of the lives of two women who are destined to become far more important to each other than they could ever have imagined, as well as of the intersecting lives of those closest to them. It takes readers on a sometimes heart-breaking journey from occupied Paris and the threat of the Nazi regime, to post-war Palestine and life under the British Mandate, to the socially oppressive London of the 1950s, and on to contemporary London and all it has to offer (both the good and the bad). It’s a powerful and highly emotional story that features more twists and turns than readers might initially expect. Even when it seems that Flora’s notebook has revealed all the mysteries of her past, it emerges that there are still secrets to be uncovered, while Hannah’s own life is not without skeletons in the closet.

The narrative focuses on the lives of Flore/Flora and Hannah in turn, and they are both fascinating characters. Flora truly lived through historic times and experienced much of the very worst that humanity has to offer, but she also enjoyed many good times and was ultimately content in her marriage to Henry Dobbs. The diary/record that she bequeaths to Hannah is the account of often astounding events of global significance, which help to explain the rather reserved and suspicious woman that Hannah considered her elderly neighbour to be, but it’s also a very personal account of love, hope and disappointment. Of course, like all good stories, it’s sometimes difficult to tell how much Flora is really revealing, how much she actually knows/believes to be true, and how much has been warped by the passage of time. She certainly doesn’t come across as an overtly unreliable narrator but, despite all that she witnessed throughout her life, it is very much possible that she is neither the best judge of character nor the most accurate chronicler of events.

Initially, Hannah’s life appears to have been far less tumultuous than Flora’s. After all, she hasn’t had to face life under the Nazis, the loss of her family, being forced into life as an illegal immigrant, getting caught up in a terrorist attack, etc. However, Hannah’s life has really been far from smooth sailing. Although she didn’t experience the death of her family at a young age, she did go through a family breakdown, as well as living through some deeply distressing times with her parents and her troubled brother, Ben. In fact, it soon emerges that the two women have a lot more in common than might be expected. Like Flora, Hannah dreamed of becoming a writer and, while she ultimately took a different path, it is her interest in the various natures of people, as well as her desire to get to the heart of matters, that causes her to become so embroiled in Flora’s life. She’s a great character, and it’s very easy to get swept along in her quest for the truth.

Where to Find Me is a very poignant tale of the pain that can be caused by both secrets and the truth (or, at least, by the truth as revealed to other people). It explores the danger as well as the temptation of keeping people at a distance and avoiding matters that seem too connected to a difficult past. It’s also something of a mystery, as Flora’s notebook and Hannah’s investigation reveal many secrets from the past, secrets that will have repercussions for far more people than just the two of them. Ultimately, it’s an emotional and highly recommended read.

Erin Britton 5/5

Where to Find Me by Alba Arikha
Alma Books Ltd 9781846884481 pbk Sep 2018

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