The American publication of a Russian Booker Prize-winning political novel, translated by Simon Patterson and Nina Chordas.
Chizhova’s novel tells a stirring and claustrophobic tale of life in 1960s totalitarian Soviet Russia following the 900-day siege of Leningrad (now known as St. Petersburg) during World War II. Five different voices narrate the story. There’s Suzanna (affectionately baptized Sofia), a mute 7-year-old at the novel’s center, who spends her days daydreaming and drawing who and what she sees around her and her single mother, Antonina, a downtrodden factory worker. Three older women—the curmudgeonly Yevdokia, uppity Glikeria and well-educated Ariadna—take Sofia and Antonina into their communal, ramshackle home and become Suzanna’s surrogate “grannies.” Their story is a simple one. Aside from Antonina’s ailing medical condition (she falls ill from cancer), not much happens. But it’s the ordinariness of these women’s daily drudgery—the endless queues for supplies, the hours boiling dirty rags, the constant cooking of potatoes and bland food—that comes vibrantly alive on the page. Unlike most Russian literature, there’s a dearth of male characters in this novel. As young boys and older men went off to war and were later killed, these stalwart women remained to fend for themselves. Their courage and dignity, despite rampant government oppression, is seen in their gestures, in the lines on their faces, in their proud, collective silent rebellion. A scattered, stream-of-consciousness writing style takes some getting used to, especially at the beginning, and it’s often difficult to keep track of which character is doing the narrating or whether a conversation is spoken or merely overheard. But persistence promises hearty rewards, including a vision of a Russian past not often revisited. Backmatter includes footnotes.
For Western readers unfamiliar with Russian/Soviet history, an especially dramatic read.