The Morningside by Téa Obreht review – life in exile

On Island City, which may be, or may once have been, Manhattan, in a once-luxurious apartment block called The Morningside, an 11-year-old girl watches and learns about the community she lives in while yearning to discover more about the community she comes from.

Silvia and her family – her mother and her aunt, Ena, the superintendent of the block – are refugees from an unnamed country whose traditions and myths they carry with them in revealingly different ways. Ena treasures the past and revisits it, preserving artefacts and telling folk tales from the old country, while Silvia’s mother, who has her own reasons to want to leave everything behind, is against reminiscing and discourages her daughter’s questions about her father, her family and life in the old country.

As Obreht draws them, aunt and mother represent the two ways of navigating exile, holding on and letting go: “If the past had previously felt like a forbidden room briefly glimpsed as my mother was shutting its door, here was Ena, holding the door wide.” But because Obreht’s characters are so vibrant and individualised, they are never ciphers for particular ways of being. In this novel, letting go and holding on have more in common than we – and the characters – think.

Silvia and her family are part of a “Repopulation Program”, waiting to be housed in a scheme to revive a metropolis that has been largely abandoned by its inhabitants in the wake of environmental disaster: hurricanes, quakes and floods. The wealthy have escaped to higher ground and fresher water, as they usually do. The family are refugees from a place known only as “Back Home”, though readers of Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife will recognise something of that novel’s unspecific Balkans; this is a composite of postwar, post-communist Europe, and maybe even a post-Europe Europe, rather than a directly mappable place. The Morningside also shares elements of style, voice and imaginative hinterland with Obreht’s first novel: a first-person narrator with a worldview that is fresh without being naive, and a fascination with the power of stories to ground us in our pasts while also showing us ways through our present.

“Back Home” stands for all homelands that people are forced to leave. The language Silvia and her family speak is called simply “Ours”. This is delicately and truthfully done; Obreht deals in big, topical and often brutal themes without ever sacrificing the artistry of her storytelling to preachiness or brute allegory.

When we first encounter her, Silvia is puzzling over her mother’s role in a mysterious criminal case in the old country, while also musing over a legend told by her aunt about Vila, a mountain spirit who roams with her three shape-shifting sons. Wars and environmental disasters have forced even the spirits to leave their lands: “As the world breaks, the Vilé move on. There must be hundreds of them drifting along like the rest of us,” says Ena.

As if to prove the point, Silvia is fascinated by the mysterious penthouse-dwelling artist Bezi Duras, also from “Back Home”, whose three dogs, according to Ena, are not dogs. Ena tells Silvia that there is “a world underneath the world”. When, early in the novel, Ena drops dead while tying a shoelace, it is left to Silvia to discover it. Obreht is a novelist of great skill and warmth, for whom the ancient forms of storytelling – folk tales, myths and legends – retain all their capacity to explain and mystify, soothe and terrify.

Fictional children are often spies in a world of adults, and the trope of the curious child’s-eye view is a familiar one. Silvia is in that tradition, but her voice and perspective are always fresh. She is a winning narrator, and she relates her tale with humour, excitement, tenacious curiosity and dread. The novel is full of characters, including Mila, who becomes Silvia’s accomplice in curiosity, and Lewis May, the building’s former superintendent, a writer in search of his lost manuscript. Though The Morningside could be called dystopian, to this reader it feels hopeful in the way it imagines the near future: the Repopulation Program is a result of rich countries paying their dues to the displaced and traumatised populations of other lands; trains work, more or less; there is a school and basic healthcare, even “the trash gets taken out”. There is a society, and there are forms of community and solidarity, such as the pirate radio station Drowned City Dispatch. All these make the novel more about the ways we pull together than the ways we fall apart.

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The Morningside by Téa Obreht is published by W&N (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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