Mother Tongue by Joyce Kornblatt

‘When you were three days old, I took you from the newborn nursery in Mercy Hospital, Pittsburgh, in America.’

In middle age, Nella Pine learns that she is not who she thought she was.  She grew up, thinking she was the daughter of Eve Gilbert, a widow who had left her grief behind in the USA to establish a new life in Australia.  But when Eve dies, she finds a letter.  Eve Gilbert was a nurse, called Ruth Miller, who stole baby Naomi from the newborn nursery and fled to Australia.

Why?  What can Nella do with this information?  Can she find her birth family?  Where does she fit? What about baby Naomi’s family in Pittsburgh?

So many questions to consider while reading this contemplative short novel.  What would Nella’s life have been, if she had grown up with her sister Leah and her parents Deborah and Paul?  What compelled Ruth to take Naomi and change both their identities?

There are other stories woven through this narrative: Alex (once Nella’s husband) with his own experience of lost identity; Leah who always believed that Naomi would make contact; and Deborah whose world changed forever when Naomi was stolen.

I finished this book wondering about the different paths that lives can take.  The shocking theft of one child, the forced adoption of another.  The ripple effect of an action on so many lives.  How do we know who we are, how do we find our place in the world?  What is the balance between nature and nurture?

This is a novel I will reread.  It is an extraordinary story, beautifully presented, full of complex questions.

‘You give each other the stories.  They haven’t been lost.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith