Debra Dean’s beautiful novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad is one of a handful of key texts we’ll be exploring as part of our research project. We’ll be sharing and discussing extracts from the novel during our forthcoming reading groups. The story shuttles between a wedding on an island in contemporary America and the autumn of 1941 where we first meet a much younger Marina, resident in Leningrad’s Hermitage Museum. As the city is under siege Marina struggles to survive in appalling conditions and yet while moving the museum’s masterpieces away for safekeeping, she finds solace in committing each image to memory. Many years later, during her granddaughter’s wedding, an older Marina experiences flashbacks of her old life in Russia and, as a result of the Alzheimer’s she’s living with, becomes increasingly confused about where, and indeed, when she is.
The Madonnas of Leningrad is an exquisitely written novel. It is worth reading alone for the beautifully drawn descriptions of the artwork Marina is so fond of. It also provides a gentle but accurate portrait of a family doing their best to nurture and accommodate their elderly parents as they deal with the implications of dementia. I found the scenes towards the novel’s close when Marina wanders from her hotel room particularly affective emotionally. Dean does a wonderful job of recording the fears and frustrations of the family as they try to track Marina down before it’s too late. Both her portraits of Marina’s husband and daughter are incredibly honest and accurate.
However, the thing I loved most about The Madonna’s of Leningrad was Dean’s ability to use the flashback device within her novel to effectively capture Marina’s confusion. As the story progresses and the reader is transported further and further into the backstory of Marina’s past, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell where the line between past and present lies. There were several moments when I had to stop and concentrate in order to locate Marina’s narrative. Was she describing a present scene, or something from many decades ago? I loved this natural sense of confusion. It helped me empathise with Marina’s experience. I felt like I was seeing and thinking through the lens of her muddled up memory. Past blurred with present. Fears and anxieties long left behind began to take on a fresh urgency. It was a very immersive reading experience. I thoroughly enjoyed this short novel and the way Dean expertly reveals the rich life Marina has lived by using fractured snippets of her memory.
The Madonnas of Leningrad was published by Fourth Estate in 2006