Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Irina's Story by Jim Williams

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett ( author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Man with the Horn, The Land Beyond Goodbye, and Don’t Look Down.

What We Thought: Set in Russia, Irina's Story follows the history of the Uspensky family from the end of the 19th century to the fall of Communism. The Uspenskys, comfortably well-off from the efforts of the previous generation, live in relative luxury in their country estate at Babushkino. Irina tells their story, and hers, through the eyes of various members of the family. There is Xenia, Irina’s mother, her father Nikolai, the eldest Uspensky son, and Adalia, Irina’s idealistic aunt, plus several other Uspensky siblings. There is also her father’s cousin, Alexander, and his wife Tatiana. The history of the family reflects the history of Russia from the last years of the tsar, through the soviet era and Stalinist horrors, and into the time of nascent capitalism and gangsterism.

Born deformed, Irina is often considered stupid and is overlooked. Her father, seared with guilt because he has created a monster, can barely bring himself to touch her. As she grows, however, she shows herself to be so much more than she at first seems. Her friendship with a local boy, whom she meets when they are children, lasts for decades though they rarely see each other and the love Irina hopes for never materialises.

As the years go by the family falls into disarray. They suffer through both wars, the coming of the Soviet Union, and the Stalinist purges. Falling foul of the rapid changes of ideology and government they lose all they have. Poverty, squalor, drudgery and labour camps await them.

Irina has access to letters, diaries, overheard conversations and stories told to her by others. What she does not directly know, she fills in from imagination and experience. In her later years she looks after a young family member though unsure of who he actually is – a great-grandson of one of her brothers perhaps? Through him she witnesses the birth of a new corrupt and violent Russia. In her nineties now, she has seen almost a century of changes, most of them unwelcome.

This book reads like a Russian novel on a grand scale, and is interspersed with Irina's more up to date commentary. It is filled with insights into the emotional and psychological lives of the characters, particularly the women, and into life in general. It is both a fascinating account of recent Russian history – incorporating social, economic and military details – and a series of personal histories, all told with verve and colour. At the same time it comments on itself and the nature of memory and writing. Irina’s underlying humour and toughness prevent it from being either sentimental or depressing.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Books that span decades. Plenty of historical detail.

Avoid if you dislike: Russian novels.

Ideal accompaniments: A warm blanket – it’s chilly in Siberia.

Genre: Historical/Literary Fiction

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