Reed’s debut novel explores how the disruptions of history affect the interconnected lives of several women in communist Czechoslovakia.
In August 1968, during a Soviet invasion, a baby girl is left outside a peasant woman’s house in Czechoslovakia, the name “Zofie” embroidered on her blanket. The woman, Uršula, takes her in. When Zofie is 11, a Communist Party apparatchik notes her intelligence, offers to help her learn German, and lends her books, which are transformative. Zofie experiences familial warmth for the first time when she’s invited to her classmate Katarina Vacek’s summer cottage, where she spends three summers. Later educated in Prague, Zofie immerses herself in its culture, becoming a translator for the education ministry, which becomes less subject to censorship as communism loses its grip. Next, Uršula tells her brief story: She didn’t speak until she was 8—her muteness a kind of spell that a circus dwarf breaks by asking her name and age. The next section tells the heartbreaking tale of Zofie’s mother, Maria, who’s separated from her baby daughter by the invasion. Now married and living in Wales with her son, Maria’s inquiries regarding Zofie’s location have led to nothing, and she must live with sorrow, regret, and uncertainty. The novel then takes up Zofie’s story again, as well as that of Nataša, Katarina’s orphaned daughter, whom Zofie takes in; painting helps Nataša heal her broken memories. Throughout this novel, Reed renders her characters’ different first-person points of view with the toughness and delicacy of a dancer en pointe whose grace belies a foundation of pain. Although tragedy runs through the broken mother-daughter relationships, each character manages to find meaning and beauty in the world through art. Even Uršula, whose words are so often trapped within herself, vividly remembers making a mobile out of string, a dead butterfly, feathers, and other bits and pieces. Not that art is easy; Zofie, for example, risks much when working on samizdat (banned literature), and it’s photography that takes Maria out of the country at a crucial time. Reed handles such ironies with intelligence and skill in this fine debut.
A rich, deeply felt, but never sentimental novel.