The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

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The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: In modern day America, the elderly postwar immigrant Marina is losing her grip on reality. As her mind tries to keep control of what might be real, she slips back into her memories of 1941 and the siege of Leningrad, when her duty was to protect the treasures of the Hermitage, through cold and starvation and personal deprivations beyond imagination. A strangely beautiful and lyric take on what war and famine can do to an individual soul.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: June 2007
Publisher: HarperPerennial
ISBN: 978-0007215065

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Marina is losing her grip on reality. She knows this is happening. She studies the faces, knows she should recognise them and tries to say something sensible... which is very hard when you don't know who they are, why they are here or what you call... "those things... you know... ".

Marina, in her eighties, is about to head out to Drake Island, where her son has his Dacha... for her granddaughter's wedding. "There is a wedding this weekend, but she cannot remember the couple"... ah yes, Katie is Andrei's child, but who is Cooper... should she remember his name?

Marina has Alzheimer's - or maybe some other form of age-related senility for what difference it makes - she cannot remember why she is holding the pan under the tap. Is she washing up, or about to start breakfast? Is she hungry?

Anyone who has been through this with a parent or other loved one will recognise the symptoms; will relive the despair, the anger, the love the circumstances dictate. Daughter Helen is distraught - but then she comes upon it suddenly, unaware. Son Andrei, in more frequent contact, is practical - seeing the slow onslaught, he is seeking to find a sanctuary for his mother - not understanding that that is the last thing she needs. Husband Dimitri simply loves her and does what she needs him to do, through his own inabilities and struggles... he is there and they will cope. After all they have been through... how can they not cope with this?

As 1941 draws to a close Marina, who had been a guide at Leningrad's Hermitage Museum, is involved in the evacuation of the artwork. The masterpieces are being taken down and packed for evacuation and safekeeping... trainloads of treasures depart. But the people will remain. As the Germans advance, the city is bombed and its food-supply warehouses are prime targets... the siege takes hold just as the famous Russian winter begins to bite...

The citizens of Leningrad begin to starve, to die, to find ways of surviving... or not.

Marina's family - workers at the museum, art historians and archaeologists - take shelter in the cellars beneath the palace. They continue their work, protecting and preserving their heritage in their own ways. But mainly just surviving.

As the aged Marina, now living in America, loses her touch with the present, it is upon the past that her mind focuses... those dark days during the siege.

She tells us of the daily struggles... but she also takes us through the museum, gives us one more guided tour through the memory palace that a Babushka of the time taught her to build.

She describes for us the wonders of the palace, and the pictures that once occupied frames now empty and bare. She walks through the empty rooms reliving the glories of art and sharing them with us, interpreting them, committing them to her memory.

The she retreats to the cellar: the dark, cold, hunger... or climbs to the roof to watch the city for fires.

Rationally it should not be possible to take the horrors of war and, without denying them or glorifying them, render them into something beautiful. Debra Dean has done so.

The plight of her family during the siege is told much the way I have heard survivors talk of those times. This is how it was. Almost as if it was not unimaginable, or awe-ful, or horrid (in the full meaning of those words), almost as if it just was 'one of those things' that you found were happening and so got on with doing. Maybe, as she says, the human being does have a limited capacity for grief and there is a point at which a kind of numbness sets in, and you just do what needs to be done. You gobble down your day's ration of bread in an instant for the transient feeling of a real meal... or you scientifically divide it up and measure it out, to ensure you have the next 'meal' , the next milestone, to get you through the endless hours of cold and hunger. Each to his own.

The people are not heroes... somehow they are not really victims either. There is nothing glorious or noble about them. They are just people. This is what happened. This is what they did.

They did it with love and passion. They did it for a regime that robbed and sold art to finance its political objectives long before the current crisis; they did it for a regime that even now valued the paintings above the people ~ without seeing anything wrong in that. Perhaps they didn't do for the regime at all, as they bowed and crossed themselves before the bare frames of the missing Madonnas, hoping for miracles or knowing there would be no more blessings.

And it touched them deeply... as their children would see as they were force-fed through the subsequent years of plenty.

All of this and more, much more, Debra Dean gives us in under 250 pages of simple, lyrical, eloquence. How does she find beauty in any of it? I confess, I don't know. You'll have to read the book and judge for yourself.

For a unique take on the siege, Dean has taken an artist's viewpoint and created a masterpiece. Succinct, and - I can't get away from the word - beautiful.

Our thanks go to the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

If we take pleasure in the fiction that comes out of such times, it's beholden upon us to do the "reality check". Take a look at this.

Booklists.jpg The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean is in the Top Ten War Novels.

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