Eleanor Thom

(Taproot Press, £11.99)


In Eleanor Thom’s semi-autobiographical novel, ribbons of mitochondrial DNA connect the stories of two women living 80 years apart: the narrator, Helena, and her grandmother, Dora Tannenbaum, a German Jew who settled in Scotland shortly after war broke out, but whose tragic past remains shrouded in mystery.


As it opens, Helena is in hospital in Kilmarnock, waiting to give birth. She’s on a ward for expectant mothers with complications, which in her case is three uterine fibroid tumours, one the size of a rugby ball. She’s an air traffic controller, whose job depends on staying cool under pressure, but the strain of the next few years is going to test her severely.


When she’s not worrying about the hard lumps in her abdomen, or the mother and baby on the ward about to be separated by social services, Helena is trying to piece together the life of her grandmother, based on her memories and whatever scant information she can dig up.


Dora’s story is told in parallel, marked by a shift to the third person. We see her in Berlin in 1937, hours away from giving birth herself and running the gauntlet of Nazi patrols on her way to the hospital. Pregnant by a cad who has abandoned her, Dora is not only without a husband but, because of her father’s legal status, is classified as Stateless too. She doesn’t have the money, the means or the contacts to escape Nazi Germany, at least not yet.


Although she does make it out eventually and gets to London, where she works in domestic service, she hasn’t been able to bring her daughter, Ruth – Britain needs maids, not children – and she works frantically to try to have her sent over before war breaks out and the channels of communication between the two countries are shut down, possibly for years.


The institutionalisation of childbirth and motherhood is one of the many strands that connect grandmother and granddaughter. (Like Helena, Dora is left with a hard, bony lump in her womb that persists for the rest of her life.) As she recounts the weeks Dora spends in a mother and baby home before her inevitable separation from her daughter, Helena finds out that her newborn son, Ash, has developmental problems that doctors will spend years trying to diagnose. She can’t help wondering if it’s a genetic condition, and therefore another link to Dora. Ash’s slow development and inability to use his legs, and the constant intrusion of the medical profession into their lives, spark tension and bickering in her marriage. Feeling isolated from the other young mothers around her, Helena finds a lifeline in her research into Dora, and the Jewish side of her family: “Maybe I just want to know what to do with the thirty-three per cent of myself that Dora folded up, pushed into a bag, and hid in the back of a wardrobe.”


Connective Tissue is heavily fictionalised, so occupies an uneasy hinterland between biography and novel, and Thom admits in the Afterword that it’s destined to be “a story forever half-told”. It’s a well-realised story, though, vividly evoking Dora’s experiences in pre-war Germany, where children play games with public water pumps and the streets are bedecked with pickle stalls and displays of fruits and pastries. It has a viscerality not always found in memoirs of its kind, drawing an intimate physical connection between generations, and succeeding as a heartfelt tribute to her tenacious grandmother and to the generations of her family she never knew who died at the hands of the Nazi regime.