The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
Just finished reading the Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean for my book club choice. In this debut novel we are brought the story of Marina Buriakov told during two different timelines, present day and WW11 in Leningrad. The modern day story shows how Marina and her husband Dmitri are struggling to deal with their old age and it quickly becomes apparent that Marina is suffering the onset of Alzheimers and struggling greatly with short term memory loss. Her memories from war torn Russia are however crystal clear and it is during Marina’s flashbacks that we begin to discover her earlier story, how she met her husband who was then taken to war and how she managed to survive the siege of Leningrad.
Out of the two timeframes I think the story of Marinas survival during the siege makes the more interesting read. At the time Marina is working in the Heritage museum and as news of the war breaks the staff at the museum spend all their waking hours (and a few in which they should be sleeping) packing up the precious paintings and other valuables from the museum to be shipped out to safety. We have a brief introduction to Dmitri before he is whisked away to war but then hear nothing more from him as the story obviously centres around Marina. During the time we spend in Marina’s past we come to understand the incredible suffering that so many people faced during the siege. Following the bombing of the food warehouses and the eventual surrounding of the outer rims of Leningrad by the Germans, thereby cutting off all routes, there was very little remaining to eat in the city. Everything was rationed and eventually the only food available was three small portions of black bread (which was made with more cardboard than flour). The death toll, particularly among women, children and the old and vulnerable was tremendous and people’s actions as they fought to stay alive became more and more desperate. Marina is a woman who loves art – following the removal of the paintings she spends a lot of time touring the corridors and rooms of the museum with one of her colleagues trying to memorise the pictures that once covered the walls. I like this idea of a memory palace which Marina and her friend construct – and where it seems Marina seems to retreat as the Alzheimers she suffers from takes yet more of her memories.
The more modern day story revolves around Marina and Dmitri attending a family wedding. This side is very sympathetically told. We see how gradually Dmitri has taken over most of the care for Marina and it’s really incredibly sad, especially when Dmitri finally realises that he is losing his wife to the disease, she is of course physically present but every day she becomes more and more withdrawn and it made me really so sad for both of them but especially Dmitri to lose his partner this way. The story culminates when Marina goes missing after they have attended the wedding of their grand daughter. A large search ensues and the extent of Marina’s deterioration is then finally made clear to the rest of her family.
In terms of criticisms. Although I think this book is really well conceived and well told I liked, not loved it. For me personally, I came away from the story feeling I had unfinished business. I thought the story set in Leningrad was the better told of the two but even in this area I thought something was missing. I never really felt as though there was a resolution to all the issues and certain areas just felt briefly touched upon. I don’t think I ever really felt the true horror of the situation as a lot of the earlier chapters are taken up with the descriptions of the paintings – which I enjoyed – but, felt the rest of the story suffered as a result. Thinking about that more of course it could have been the intention of the author to try and remove the readers from the horrors of the siege and give them this artistic respite, or more to the point perhaps it was showing us how Marina coped during that time by removing her self from the brutality surrouding her and became immersed in the artwork in her imagination? I don’t know though – I think the situation could have been expanded upon. Plus, I felt the reunion between Dmitri and Marina was very flat, not to mention brief. And I think you would struggle to think of this as a love story (although it is true that in the more modern chapters you definitely witness the love between the couple).
In terms of the more contemporary story – I thought the characters were a bit flat. I never really got a feel for the daughter and thought there was quite a lot of unspoken and unresolved tensions there that were never truly touched upon. I also thought the ending was almost disappointingly sudden – again, perhaps the author was trying to demonstrate something there, perhaps a parallel – the speed with which the disease eventually progressed? Or maybe she didn’t want to stretch this side of the story out which I can understand as it would probably be too upsetting for some people to read.
In spite of my objections I did think this was a good read I just wish it had been filled out a bit more. I don’t mind reading short books as such but with this particular one I think it would have lent itself to a good deal more detail that I would certainly not have objected to.