What a wonderful book! Wow. A first novel by Debra Dean which garnered a number of the smaller, lesser known awards, it is the story of Alzheimers, the 900 day siege of Leningrad, and of art and memory.
Marina, whose parents were imprisoned and then killed when she was a young child, before the Second World War, was taken in by an uncle, a noted archeologist. When she finishes school, he arranges for her to have a job as a docent, a tour guide, in the famed Hermitage Museum in what was then called Leningrad.
She has fallen in love with the art, and with a young man who is soon to be sent off to the front lines, as this is 1941 and the Germans are pressing closer. As soon as the director of the museum hears that the Germans are coming and shelling of the city will begin, he has all the museum workers pack up everything and load it on trains to be taken away for safekeeping.
The siege of Leningrad begins, and the workers and families are sheltered in the basements of the museum, and the time of deprivation is upon them.
We meet Marina today as a woman in her much later years. She is now living in the USA with her husband of 63 years, the man she fell in love with so long ago in Leningrad, who miraculously survived the war, and she is struggling with dementia, with remembering, and we are privy to her thoughts that are of a dream-like nature, more at home in her days in Russia than in her present life, where everything is now confusing and bewildering.
A grandchild is getting married, and it is the weekend of the wedding, and the narration goes back and forth between the challenges of the present day and its dementia, and her memories of her time during the siege.
It is an excellent recounting of the siege in Leningrad, the preparations for the war, the saving of the artwork, just amazing, and made the reader feel life as it was for the average person, not just the cold facts of the history book. And when she is elderly, we can see the contrast between what is real today and what was real 60 year ago.
A wonderful book, and one that makes me curious as to why it didn’t receive some of the more prestigious awards.