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Review: Kidnapping was just a family secret in compelling ‘Five Days Gone’

Laura Cumming is the author of “Five Days Gone.”
The devotion of mothers and daughters runs through Laura Cumming’s “Five Days Gone.”
(Sebastian Barfield)

One autumn afternoon in 1929, when Laura Cumming’s mother was 3-years-old, she disappeared from the beach where she was playing with her mother. “Short fair hair, no coat, blue eyes and dress to match: That was the description later given to the police,” Cumming writes.

So begins one of the most compelling memoirs of recent years, a book with as many twists and turns as any mystery, a family history of great emotional resonance.

Little Betty Elston, as she was then known, was returned to her parents, George and Veda, after five days. She didn’t learn about her own kidnapping until decades later.

There were other secrets too. The Elstons were not a family that spoke openly about things. Their home, stultifyingly quiet, lay in the tiny town of Chapel St. Leonards in Lincolnshire, England “the flattest of all English counties,” Cumming writes, “the least altered by time, or mankind.”

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‘Five Days Gone’
The cover of the book "Five Days Gone."
(Scribner)

People in the village knew more of Betty’s life story than she did; their reticence to share that knowledge, even years later, renders them an uncommonly silent Greek chorus.

One of the other secrets (I won’t spoil the rest) was that Betty hadn’t always been Betty. She was named Grace at birth by her unwed young mother, and arrived as a toddler to live with George and Veda when they were both 49. The childhood she remembered was protective without being loving.

“Veda never played with Betty,” Cumming writes, whether because she was overwhelmed by housework (the family could not afford any servants) or perhaps simply “unaccustomed to small children, shy, uncertain, possibly undermined by the kidnap.” The three lived with Veda’s mother, whom Betty recalls as “very deaf, frail and alarmingly given to nosebleeds.”

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I say that Betty remembers her that way: Many of the book’s most charming lines come from Betty herself — the result, as Cumming explains, of a memoir Betty wrote at her daughter’s request, a gift for her 21st birthday. And what a gift!

Both women are strong and graceful writers, and as a result “Five Days Gone” combines richly layered narratives and descriptions, including a kind of window into Betty’s younger life as remembered by her in middle age.

“Her life began with a false start and continued with a long chain of deceptions, abetted by acts of communal silence so determined they have continued into my life too,” Cumming writes. “But to my surprise, the truth turns out to pivot on images as much as words.”

Cumming, an art critic for the Observer newspaper, starts with the trove of family pictures taken by Betty’s father, a hobbyist photographer. In them, Betty appears happy and healthy; what she remembers, though, is “the photographer’s tyranny,” her father’s gruff orders and overprotective bullying. The pictures begin with her adoption and end when she is 13, around the time she learns the secret and confronts her parents about it, only to meet more closed doors and silence.

“We need images quite apart from anything else,” Cumming writes, “when we have no words.”

Cumming’s previous book, “The Vanishing Velasquez,” traced an art historical mystery story, and here she widens her viewfinder, drawing on images as diverse as seaside posters, children’s alphabet books and paintings by Degas and Fra Angelico. She’s interested in memory, stories and images — all of which can change meaning with the smallest shifts in perception.

“The lives of our parents before we were born are surely the first great mystery,” Cumming writes. It’s a curiosity that stems in part from egoism — how could the world exist before we do? — but also one that comes from love.

The deep devotion of mothers and daughters runs through “Five Days Gone” like an underground river. From her own difficult and often cold childhood, Betty grew to be a devoted mother, fiercely connected to her children, telling them, “I never belonged to anyone until I belonged to you.”

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Perhaps that love is what makes this book so compelling, it bestows a kind of grace that allows, in the end, for no villains. As Cumming discovers the truth behind her family, she writes, “I have grown up and learned about human frailty; the effects of foolishness and disappointment; the longing for a child.”

The book begins and ends with two versions of the same tiny photograph, a circular tale that winds through nearly a century of family lives and lies. “She stopped searching long ago,” Cumming writes of her mother, “but now I must discover the truth of her story.” It’s an extraordinary story, and an even better book.

Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child

Laura Cumming

Scribner: 320 pages, $26

Tuttle is a book critic whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the New York Times and Washington Post.


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