"Marisha... The daughter of a Polish Political settler from the Eastern Polish borderlands is snatched by Stalin's henchmen at the start of WWII. Along with her family, they transport her to a Gulag in Arctic Russia to be worked and starved to death.
Having been parted from the boy she loves, she strives for a new purpose and a reason to live. Emerging emaciated two years later as Stalin frees them after Hitler embarks on Operation Barbarossa, Marisha fights her way alone across the war-torn Soviet Union in search of him.
This is a true story of loss and recovery re-affirming the immutable human spirit, testing people of courage to recreate themselves in the face of total devastation.
But will she succeed... ?"
This is the second time I've read this book* and it is no less powerful upon revisiting. We have a promising debut novel from author Kristina Freer, a natural storyteller who has turned a real-life family experience into a tale that works as fiction. The fact that the author is related to the main character is almost an irrelevance as the events are written as a novel, and that's a hard trick to pull off successfully when you are writing what is essentially a memoir. It's done really well and yet the background must still have required a great deal of research. The story doesn't sensationalise, nor is it overly-sentimental, and is all the more hard hitting because of it. Marisha is a reliable narrator who is well aware when she is impatient or unkind, and doesn't flinch from showing herself in the occasional bad light, nor does she excuse herself, even though anyone in those appalling circumstances would struggle to behave well all the time.
The pacing is superb and the development of the timeline and the effects of the ordeal are shown in varying ways. I especially liked the way the stages of the ordeal are measured by the attitude to possessions, from the early scenes at the farm when they gather what they can't bear to leave behind, to the scenes at the end when a pillow and a tablecloth mean everything, and at the same time, nothing, because to keep them might mean not being allowed on a ship.
The descriptions of the natural world - especially of sunsets and weather - are extraordinary, as is the scene-setting. This 'painting with words' seems to come naturally to the author and never feels contrived; indeed it seems effortless. I can still clearly picture everything: the shacks, the layout of the 'village', the walk to the station, and the railway wagons. When Marisha had to leave her mother at the railway station, I saw every moment and movement. The descriptions are sometimes the more brilliant for their simplicity: the gypsy women arrive 'barefoot and uninvited' into the kitchen, and Marisha describes how she and her fellow travellers 'blundered forward into the haze of our own spent breath.'
Along with the imagery there is a nice sense of continuity and symbolism, such as when Marisha looks back at her home and realises that in her hurry to pack she has forgotten to blow out the lamp and she can see it burning in the window as they ride away.
Inevitably, there is not much joy in the story, there are few moments of levity. At times it makes for deeply upsetting reading, the more so because it is true. Yet there is a spark of hope throughout, and moments where faith in humanity is, if not restored, bolstered at least.
Ms Freer is to be congratulated on this remarkable debut. Turning a relative's memories into such compelling drama is no mean feat.
*When first submitted to Discovering Diamonds, this book was hampered by a lack of stringent copy-editing and proofreading, resulting in far too many uncorrected typos and errors. Rather than reject it out of hand (recognising a good book and a potentially talented writer) DDRevs suggested to Ms Freer that she undertake a thorough re-edit, and to her great credit she has revised, edited, and polished what was a 'good' book so that it now gleams. There are a few remaining punctuation issues, but the author's beautiful prose and lyrical writing far outweigh any very small 'niggles'. That the author realised the importance of undertaking the revisions only adds to my conviction that here is definitely an author to watch and I look forward to reading more of her work. Brava.
Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Lucy Townshend
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