#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews SOVIET MILK by Nora Ikstena

This is an invaluable memoir of Latvia’s recent past, covering a span of five decades, from the end of WWII to the tottering of the Soviet monolith. It is also one of the most devastating novels I’ve ever read about women’s lives in any society, made even more poignant because it is based on Nora Ikstena’s own story – her childhood in Soviet-occupied Latvia spent with a mother who committed suicide before knowing the freedom of independent Latvia.

This is a novel of the senses and although I was initially annoyed by the nameless mother and daughter, and the shifting timelines and alternating voices, weeks after I read it Soviet Milk still clings to me like a lover. This is because it’s a triumph, for Peirene Press and the translator as well as the author. It works on so many levels: as history narrated by individuals; as a portrait of village life; as a depiction of a heart-breaking mother-daughter relationship and of mental breakdown. Sensually intense and dense, you can hear and smell everything: the hops, the blood, disinfectant and medicines, the daughter’s school year beginning ‘during the beetroot and carrot season’, the apples and black rye bread, the milk. Soviet Milk.

What a perfect title: the strongest smell and taste of all – mother’s milk, the source of life, but in the life of this troubled mother and her occupied country, it is toxic: ‘My milk was bitter: the milk of incomprehension, of extinction.’

The two interwoven, first-person narratives of mother and daughter begin sequentially, one in 1944 and one in 1969. ‘Moments of great darkness were relieved by occasional rays of light’. After 1944 and the Nazi and Soviet occupations, after witnessing her own father’s wartime suffering, after the death camps and deportations, the mother decides to become a doctor. She has been raised as a loyal Soviet citizen by her own mother, ‘Yet within me blossomed a hatred for the duplicity and hypocrisy of this existence’ – which she never shakes off.

When she gives birth herself, she rejects the baby (Nora) and disappears for several days. The daughter is weaned on camomile tea and retains a life-long dislike of milk:

‘Those were my worst trials at school. In our country school drinking milk was obligatory. I hated milk and all that was associated with it. I struggled with it as if with an invisible devil trying to possess me.’

Mother and daughter both live hypocritical lives under communism, compromising themselves to unbearable degrees. The child adapts, learns Russian, sings patriotic songs, all the while caring for her chain-smoking, sozzled mother, willing her to stay alive but knowing she is being sucked into ‘life’s quagmire’. There is little sentimentality but it’s heart-breaking nonetheless. The gifted mother battles with the roles of religion (or lack of it), science and medicine under communism. She is pioneering in her field of in vitro fertilisation, and briefly rides the crest of Soviet ambition, only to be thwarted by Soviet treachery.

After reading Soviet Milk you understand how the book ‘took the Baltics by storm’, as claimed by its publisher. We cannot possibly feel the same patriotic rush as the Latvians do about this novel, but we can get very close.

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

Soviet Milk

Written by Nora Ikstena

Translated by Margita Gailitis

Published by Peirene Press (2018)


Rosie Goldsmith by Sarah McIntyre

Rosie Goldsmith is Director of the European Literature Network. She was a BBC senior broadcaster for 20 years and is today an arts journalist, presenter, linguist, and with Max Easterman a media trainer for ‘Sounds Right’.

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Category: April 2018 - Baltic CountriesReviews

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