Snegurochka, by Judith Heneghan, is a claustrophobic, multi-layered tale that offers a window into life in Kiev shortly after Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in the aftermath of its dissolution. The story focuses on a young mother, Rachel, who travels from England with her infant son to join her journalist husband, Lucas, in the city where he works on a freelance basis for the BBC. The little family move into an apartment on the thirteenth floor of a Soviet era tower block. Isolated by language and the demands of a young baby, Rachel develops compulsive coping strategies. She pictures herself dropping the child from the apartment balcony so refuses to go near it, much to the frustration of Lucas who chose the apartment partly for this feature. He struggles to see the woman he married in the withdrawn mother she has become.
Lucas enjoys the company of colleagues in Kiev who welcome Rachel but cannot empathise with her as they do not have children. The local people question why she brought a baby from a country of plenty to what they regard as a blighted place. The Chernobyl disaster has caused ongoing cancers and other birth defects. There are shortages of fresh produce and concern over its provenance given how much land has been polluted. When Rachel does not conform to their customs, they criticise the way she cares for her child.
With shortages of food and material goods comes an underground network of smugglers, gangsters and fixers. Memories of widespread famine, then of Soviet spies and betrayal, are still raw amongst the population. Rachel has asked Lucas to source a washing machine for their apartment but money is tight and such white goods imported. To acquire one requires more than a monetary transaction.
Rachel walks around the neighbourhood pushing her baby buggy and trying to work out where and how items may be bought. She attends a few social events with Lucas and his friends but finds little in common with these photographers and journalists, vying for their next story and milking contacts. Instead she observes local people: the elderly caretaker of their building, a teenager living in the apartment above, her husband’s driver. They each have their secrets and are somewhat contemptuous of Rachel but grow concerned when a ‘businessman’ starts to pay her attention.
The subtle shifts between ordinary actions – reading a book, catching a tram, walking through a crowd – and the threatening undercurrents that are ever present, provide not just suspense but a questioning of the veracity of each character. Rachel is aware that many of her fears have no solid basis, yet cancers are not the only malady infecting Ukraine’s people. The dangers encroaching those she starts to care for are rooted deep, exacerbated by their need to survive after futures have been stymied by changes in government, ongoing corruption and the resentments generated.
This is a fascinating portrayal of Kiev and its people, written with skill, depth and sympathy but never shying away from darker facets. At its heart is the story of a marriage, of motherhood, and of a place contaminated by its terrible history. It is an alluring and gratifying read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.