The Madonnas Of Leningrad – Debra Dean
The Madonnas of Leningrad wasn’t what I expected when I picked it up. The blurb suggested it was going to be a tortuous first person narrative of the effects of Alzheimer’s featuring flashbacks to the Siege of Leningrad. The flashbacks were there, but the modern-day narrative was much tamer than I was expecting, as though there were scenes told by Marina, the effective protagonist, most of it was told from her daughter’s perspective.
It was still a good book in spite of that, and there were sections that felt quite traumatic, though in a very different way from the one I had imagined. The section in question is less about the personal torture of losing your faculties, than it is the very real fear that comes when you’re watching someone you care about do so. Marina, now living comfortably in the US, and her husband have been studiously denying the onset of her condition, both to their family and to themselves, and it is only when the family meet for their grandchild’s wedding that the truth begins to come out. The way this is presented is interesting, because although the reader can figure it out, it takes a while before Marina’s daughter is able to put the pieces together, and even longer until she can get an admission from her father. It’s heart-breaking, and the last quarter or so of the book, once Marina goes missing, is probably the strongest part. Dean definitely manages to get across the worry that Helen is feeling for her mother, and with each passing paragraph her anxiety was palpable, even though I was certain it would all turn out okay.
The other half of the plot, the flashbacks to Marina’s experience during the Nazi invasion of the USSR seemed like it would be more interesting, but somehow it just fell a bit short. There were some plot aspects that definitely put me off, and I’ll come back to this, but from what the blurb promised, I just didn’t feel it. Having seen her fiancé off to war, Marina continued to work in the Hermitage Museum on the important job of ensuring that works of art contained there will survive any damage to the building. As a testament to the now missing painting, Marina builds a Memory Palace of all the paintings. This is supposed to act as a parallel to the memory losses that are happening in the other half of the book, but somehow I just don’t care about them. I suppose in a way it’s also mean to symbolise hope for Marina, as you can guess from the title, the paintings she focuses on most are those of the Madonna and child, and this fixation on protection makes sense for someone who has been reduced to eating the glue from the painting frames to survive. There’s also a rather odd section where Marina, driven to the brink by bereavement and starvation imagines making love to a golden angel, thus conceiving her son. It’s all a bit eccentric and frankly puts me off the novel a bit.
That said, there is still a lot to like about the novel, and though I was initially put off by the fact it wasn’t what I expected, once I got into it I think I read it almost in one sitting. It’s a nice short book that ends, despite the note of uncertainty, on a positive and almost optimistic note.