Just before my sunny holiday in Hawaii, I read the rather bleak Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena – in summary, avoid it if you need cheering up, as it’s about repression, mental health, addiction, and fraught mother-daughter relationships.
It’s set in the Soviet-ruled Baltics between 1969 and 1989 and examines the impact of Soviet rule on a girl and her family (predominantly her mother and grandmother). Some of the story is told from the mother’s perspective, as her education and opportunities were quite different to those ultimately available to her daughter. At the beginning, we learn of the mother’s efforts to follow her calling as a doctor.
She would be a doctor and a scientist, come what may. For the moment she easily manages to regurgitate the official programme, while simultaneously acquiring a totally different, prohibited education.
But an error at work results in the state stepping in and she is banished to a village in the Latvian countryside, where her sense of isolation increases, her mental health deteriorates, and she is deprived of professional work. Throughout this, we see the girl trying to maintain her relationship with her mother – her conservative and rule-abiding nature clashing with her mother’s risk-taking.
There is so much in this relatively short novel but two things stood out for me. The first was how often children, even when they’re older, default to defending their parents; or find ways to ‘forgive’, or find reasons to continue loving them even when circumstances might suggest they do otherwise.
The second was the duplicity of the family’s existence. At the broadest level, the novel focuses on the political status of Latvia –
We carried flags in the May and November parades in honour of the Red Army, the Revolution and Communism, while at home we crossed ourselves and waited for the English army to come and free Latvia from the Russian boot.
But at the intimate level, the duality of her mother – a woman who devoted her career to gynecology and helping women have babies (or not), played against her ambivalence toward her own child (in particular, much is made of her mother’s refusal to breastfeed).
How does Ikstena want the reader to view the mother? Selfish? Brave? Determined? She might be all of those things and yet, because we see her through the eyes of her child, we get a more complex character.
I don’t remember Mother ever hugging me much, but I remember her needle-pricked thigh, where she practised injections. I remember her in bed with blue lips from the first time she overdosed, possibly as part of some medical experiment.
That said, there are some wonderful, loving relationships depicted in this story, in particular the girl and her grandmother, and the mother and a person who enters her life through work. The kindness in these relationships takes the edge off what would otherwise be a grim story.
Once my grandmother came to visit us and I was left in her care for the evening. She was making a buberts – a sweet concoction of beaten egg, cream of wheat and milk floating in cranberry sauce.
I absolutely LOVED this book and cried like a baby at the end.
Good review.. I’ll read this.
I read so many reviews of books I’ll never come across, though I suppose I could ask the bookshop to order them in, but then I’d be broke (even broker). I had such an ordinary childhood that unordinary childhoods in books mostly puzzle me, though I wouldn’t know anything about relationships if I didn’t read. (Perhaps that should be ‘would know even less ..’).