Before I start properly, think of the last time you read a novel where the cover art included an exact place you’ve been. I’ve been under the arch on the bottom left of this book’s cover, wishing I needed a kvas from the street seller and hearing trained performers rehearse through the open windows of the musical academy just a block away. But I certainly wasn’t in Kiev under the pretence of being a journalist, and certainly not dragging a wife with a four-month-old babe in arms with me. Said wife, Rachel, struggles with her new situation, while her husband gallivants around, allegedly gaining material for the BBC World Service, and only slowly finds the ground beneath her feet begin to stabilise.
This book was right up my street, for while it wasn’t my Ukraine, as it’s set before I made my first of six entrances to the place, it just smacked of authenticity. The desultory tower-block life is right out of Kieslowski films, the shortages and queues at the stores are things I’ve read about often – this really does convey life in the country immediately after the collapse of the USSR. It also sums up the Crimea in just a few words and nails it – something about it being a military base with seaside resort pretensions. But I guess many readers will be coming here due to the story and not so much the setting.
The plot, as it is, was thoroughly intriguing throughout. I did initially feel it was a little off – the husband was clearly so naive and inept, forcing a mother and baby to travel so far, to such little end, that I felt the book overly biased against the male species. But slowly, slowly, other people become involved in their story – his colleagues, their neighbours, er, the mafia – and you always wonder if this book is going to break into a genre piece, or if it will remain what it sets out as, which is a study of a woman in a place and in a family, and with a child, that she might not have wished for. For from the thirteenth floor apartment, with limited space, convenience and amenity, our heroine is constantly imagining her baby plummeting to his death…
Yes, this city of malaise does not make for a most joyful read, or particularly one you would dash to return to, but it’s a very interesting and clever read. With no narrative tricksiness it shows us the author’s knowledge of that time and place, and more importantly a wonderful character, one who struggles with her new-found family and her new-found sense of displacement. Rich and readable, this is well worth turning to.
John Lloyd 5/5
Snegurochka by Judith Heneghan
Salt 9781784631741 pbk Apr 2019