Fractured hearts, ruined lives, shattered dreams—only the art of storytelling can hope to heal these in war-ravaged Latvia.
The difficulties of forgiveness lie at the heart of this beautifully spun tale. Inara lies on her deathbed, telling her son, Maris, the stories of their family, their village, and Latvian history in hopes that in the telling, the truth will be preserved. During the Soviet invasion of Latvia, Maris’ paternal great-grandfather, Oskars, had been found with a Bible. Consequently banished to Siberia along with his wife and son, Oskars taught his son, Eriks, the family business: gravedigging. Similarly, Maris’ maternal great-grandfather, Ferdinands, had been sent away to a work camp, and his wife, Velta, had written letters, such gorgeous letters, to him. Between mushroom hunting and fishing, Inara and her brother help keep the household afloat, yet they sneak off to search for Velta’s letters, rumored to be hidden in the walls of the family’s abandoned manor house. The neighbors, the Ilmyen family, are Jewish chess masters, and they fascinate Inara, who can only hope to approximate the romantic suffering of their lives. The Zetsches, a German-Latvian couple, begin snapping up all the prime property in town, including the cemetery. Ochsner (The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight, 2010, etc.) bewitches the reader with layer upon layer of spellbinding storytelling: Velta’s letters burst with folk tales and fables; Uncle Maris’ fabulous inventions—from sloth-prevention bracelets to foul-tasting vitality elixirs—pale in comparison with his colorful insults, slung at Jews, Russians, and Ukrainians; Inara’s own dreams are populated with drowned ghost girls, her fishing expeditions haunted by magical eels. Maris himself, like the uncle he was named for, sports enormous furry ears, the better to hear not only the whispers of the buried, but also the true heartaches lurking beneath his mother’s confessions.
An astonishing alchemy of history, romance, and fable.