Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Time of Women - Elena Chizhova - Guest Book Review

Translated from the Russian by Simon Patterson with Nina Cordas

Guest book review by Mandy Jenkinson

On the surface this is a simple, domestic tale. Three elderly women are raising a little girl, Sofia, the illegitimate daughter of factory worker Antonina, who has been lucky enough to be allocated a room in the “grannies’” communal flat. While Antonina goes to work, often accepting double shifts, to support the makeshift family, the grannies tell their stories to little Sofia and reminisce about their lives, filling her head with images from Russia’s troubled past. Each of the old women has suffered immeasurably during the war and siege of Leningrad, losing homes and families. Now they pour all the love they have into the little girl.

Life is hard. The novel poignantly and vividly captures the atmosphere of 1960s Soviet life – the daily drudgery to find enough food, the endless queues, the excitement of finding fabric to make a dress and managing to jump the queue and get a TV, the difficulties of washing and doing the laundry without a bathroom. And interspersed with the minutiae of daily life are the memories of the old ladies and the unbelievable struggle they had to survive during the Siege, the hunger, the deaths, the cold. Much of the action takes place in the flat, but we are also taken to Antonina’s factory, to the shops, the church, the nursery where Sofia goes before the grannies take over.

With these three generations of women the reader has a moving and compelling account of life in Soviet Russia, all told from a feminine perspective. Men are pretty much absent from the book, or if there, then pretty unsatisfactorily. It’s certainly a grim story but ultimately one of hope and renewal. Antonina doesn’t have to suffer as much as the grannies did. Sofia will not have to suffer as much as her mother did. She will have choices none of them could have dreamt of, and she will remember them with affection and gratitude.

This is a rich and multi-faceted novel and a must-read for anyone wanting to learn more about life in the Soviet Union. It’s not always an easy read, as it frequently switches between the narrative voices, and it’s not always immediately clear whose voice we are hearing. Passages of stream of consciousness need to be read slowly and carefully to fully follow what’s happening. And it certainly helps to have some knowledge of the historical background before starting. However, these are minor criticisms of a book that I very much enjoyed and one that I look forward to reading again.  It captures perfectly the atmosphere and environment of a particular place and time with compassion and empathy, and the characters come alive and linger in the imagination long after the reader finishes the last page. A fascinating and immensely enjoyable book and a worthy winner of the Russian Booker.

Many thanks to Mandy for reading and reviewing this novel for The Little Reader Library. Mandy is an omnivorous reader who enjoys reviewing, for newbooks magazine as well as elsewhere, and enjoys discovering new authors.

1 comment:

  1. I have read a few first hand accounts of life in the old Soviet Union but none from the perspective of women. Thus this sounds to be a bit different.

    As of late I have also been drawn to books that have simple plots but that emphasize characters as this book seems to do.


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