An affecting memoir by a young Englishwoman who was studying in Russia as the Soviet system crumbled.
Beginning when she was a child, Hobson describes the weekly Russian lessons near Southampton that her mother, née Tatyana Vinogradoff, took because she did not want to lose the language. Hobson was 17 when her mother died of cancer, and to honor her lost parent she resolved to study Russian herself. Her decision to do so in the remote town of Voronezh instead of Moscow—in 1991, at the very moment the Soviet monolith was cracking—marks her early on as a fearless, even daring traveler. She lived in a seedy hostel where, she writes, “A hubble of languages rose through the smoke and pungent smells of ten dinners cooking in one kitchen.” Hobson uses a swift and accurate brush to paint the portraits of her friends and acquaintances, and despite this brief volume still finds room for indelible portraits of the woman she calls “Liza Minnelli” because of a physical resemblance, Sveta (“She carried her beauty as though it were a mild disability”), and—most searchingly—her lover Mitya, who stands with resignation in a wrenching scene on a train platform as Hobson departs forever for England at year’s end. Hobson’s eye for arresting detail presents a Russian cold so severe that it freezes the town clock solid, and a statue of Stalin whose head has been removed and replaced with that of the local poet Kolstov. And she can set forth a touching tale with a few perfect words, as when she repeats the Russian story of a man who wears iron boots for 20 years, finally removes them . . . and flies away.
An appealing new voice whispers words that convey the range of human emotions.