In the late 1930s, young Beatrice Palmer lives in Protestant Ireland with an ineffectual father and a mother who hates her bitterly; Beatrice can’t tell why. She’s been lucky in her childhood, though. She’s attached herself to a Mr. Knox, who tutors her in mythology and teaches her about birdwatching. In other words, he shows her that there are other, better existences than the one she endures at home with her toxic mother.
There’s something reminiscent of a fairy tale about Susanna Moore’s affecting new novel, “The Life of Objects.” When Beatrice comes upon some thread traditionally used to make Irish lace, she teaches herself the craft. She has more than a natural gift, and it isn’t long before a mysterious, beautifully dressed young woman asks her if she’d be interested in taking a job as a lacemaker for a prominent German family.
In many respects, Beatrice is more than ready. She receives no protection from her parents. “My father and I were in constant dread of [her mother],” she says. “I lived in a chaos of desire and disappointment.” Mr. Knox has already rewarded her with a new name, Maeve, a name redolent of Irish magic. She eagerly accepts the job to go work for “Dorothea Metzenburg, who lives in Berlin and owns a rare and extremely valuable collection of lace.” This offer is not what it seems to be, but Beatrice-now-Maeve has no way of knowing that. She’s intelligent but almost totally uninformed. She doesn’t have a clue, for instance, that World War II is looming on the horizon. To her mother’s contempt and horror, she decamps for Germany.