Eva Hoffman’s previous books have been piercingly specific about time and place—a Polish shtetl, the Holocaust, the New World as experienced by a new immigrant. In her first novel, The Secret, she abandons that grounding in the historical moment and space and goes the whole fictional length into an imagined world set in an imagined future.
The world is still a recognizable one: the book opens in a small college town near Chicago where a mother and daughter live in a “wooden house with two porches, a leafy yard and pleasing, eclectic clutter inside,” even if the narrator plays with “robodolls” and watches “virtual videos” called Just for Real. Her relationship with her mother is of a primal, visceral intensity:
We moved in our own special atmosphere, as in a semi-liquid surround, an amniotic fluid that incorporated us both and within which there was a connecting passage or cord, along which silent sounds and messages and electrical pulses travelled back and forth. We seemed to move in tandem, always knowing when the other was happy or sad, hungry or impatient. Sometimes, as we looked at each other silently, I felt as if I’d entered her and was looking at myself from inside her eyes. She sponged me up and I felt some of her own substance passing into me along the connecting corridor, like nourishment, like juice.
She would lift me up and fold me to her till the heat and softness of her body enveloped me and absorbed whatever small unhappiness was inside me into herself, until I felt dozy and fluid, like those amoebae under a microscope that maintain their amorphous shape for a moment and then merge with the organic surround…. I felt, as I raised my face to hers, that I was looking at the very image of beauty, but also at an enlarging looking-glass, into which I entered through her eyes and in which I dissolved, becoming indistinguishable from her, becoming her.
At times even the child is frightened by this experience and eventually she picks up hints that the relationship that seems almost animal is not entirely natural. A rare visit by her aunt Janey allows her to overhear a conversation in which her mother is accused of something “monstrous” and
as I stood there, riveted by the voices coming out of my mother’s study, I felt a dense darkness come over the hallway, as if the sun had been there and had gone; and I sensed a cold, scary emptiness opening within me, where a cosy warmth and safety had been…. I felt, beyond the scary gaping space, an intuition of another kind of Being, inorganic, non-biological, non-human entirely. The Weirdness. The Thing. The black matter lurking in the back of myself, into which I could vanish or metamorphose….
She struggles to escape into her own separate identity by insisting on going to school, against her mother’s wishes. There she skips rope with her friends and learns …