Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Book review : Soviet Milk - Nora Ikstena

Peirene specialise in translating little known (in the UK, at least) texts that frequently open a window onto a specific time or place in history, giving a voice to fictional underdogs and literary antiheroes that may well have otherwise gone unheard. Pereine No. 25, available in bookshops next month, is Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena, which is part of the 'Home in Exile' series.

The novel, focusing on three generations of women, tells the story of Latvia - more a "herstory" than a history, so to speak. Under Soviet rule, they have very little freedom of choice, as individuals and as a nation, and the oppressive political regime governs every aspect of their lives and even identities. The eldest woman, and the one whose voice is least present, recounts her own traumatic first steps into motherhood, in the midst of a deadly epidemic, and the murder of her husband by Russian troops. Her daughter, the most damaged and vulnerable of the three, starts off with big dreams of becoming a doctor, but her clandestine forays into the illicit realms of abortion and artificial insemination lead to her being banished from her home and career. Unwilling to uproot her own daughter, and unable to provide the maternal love and stability that she needs, she is also banished from her role as a mother. Even if her daughter continues to visit her in her remote backwater, the close bond is lost and she descends into a spiral of self-destruction. The daughter also has burgeoning ambitions and a desire to follow her studies and broaden her mind, but she is again stifled by the "cage" that they live in, as it is described in the narrative.

Each of the women is complex and unique but they also have common themes linking them - the ability to give (or receive) their mother's milk, their desire and battle for freedom in the totalitarian regime, ... Minor events and characters seem to have huge symbolic importance - for example, the pet hamster who eats his babies rather than see them grow up in a cage, which undoubtedly echoes the inner turmoil of the mother. The fact that each of the women remains nameless also gives them a wider, more universal importance than their own individual stories.

Despite the desperation and bleakness that are inherent in the narratives, the story ends with a note of optimism, as the breaking down of the Berlin Wall suggests that times are finally changing. As with many of Pereine's offerings, Soviet Milk manages to pack a real emotional punch in a short text under 200 pages, and its poignant characters will remain with you long after you have finished reading.

star rating : 4/5

RRP : £12

  • Paperback: 196 pages
  • Publisher: Peirene Press Ltd (1 Mar. 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1908670428
  • ISBN-13: 978-1908670427
  • Product Dimensions: 19.7 x 1.6 x 12.8 cm

Disclosure : I received a review copy of the book.

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