Book Review: The Book of Riga

The Book of Riga is a collection of ten short stories written by Latvian authors and set in the country’s capital city. It opens with a history of the region written by a former president. As I am unfamiliar with the background and local culture, such information was of interest, although at times I still struggled to place each of the stories within the time-frame intended.

The authors write with a distinctive, Baltic voice yet their themes are universal. They explore the frustration protagonists feel at family, particularly the older generation with their undeviating demands and expectations.

In The Girl Who Cut My Hair a group of young people indulge in what they consider meaningful discussions whilst polishing their personal vanities and youthful if frivolous preoccupations.

“We were virgins with condoms in our handbags.
Our parents had not read either Freud or Henry Miller, absolutely not.
We were always at the ready – what if life should suddenly start?”

Westside Garden revolves around a place once owned by a wealthy family, now subdivided but still housing an elderly relic of that era. The events narrated differ between the lived experience and what is recalled with the benefit of hindsight and shared reminiscences. Sexual encounters are described as a sometimes necessary irritant. The women are still expected to adhere to a standard of presentation and behaviour.

“don’t fool around with slacks and bobbed haircuts, but act like a real woman.”

In The Birds of Kipsala Island, new build homes in the city housing young families and professionals are evocatively described

“like lockers in a gym changing room”

Within the changes imposed on the historic city, a creative community seek out places were they may indulge their conceits together. Self defined artists and intellectuals eventually realise

“no one in real life is as happy, as witty, or as capable of making sound judgements, as characters in fiction.”

The Shakes is set in an office where a successful businessman observes an increase in street demonstrations and tries to see into the future using history and detailed reasoning. In trying to draw his assistant into his endeavour he risks being seen as unhinged. She too feels something out of kilter in the air but prefers to perpetuate, while she can, the comfort of accepted roles and routines.

A White Jacket With Gold Buttons offers a picture of a writer’s hubris yet sensitivity to criticism, particularly from a rival he refuses to rate.

“Writing is, in a sense, close to psychoanalysis: the power of the written word comes exactly from the fact that an author spits out his most hidden feelings, without the shiny veneer that comes from pretending.”

The collection finishes with a supernatural tale, The Night Shift, that could be a metaphor for the realities of life, and inevitability of death.

The writing throughout presents with a distinctive cadence that is somewhat mordant yet arresting in the themes explored and characters developed. The city shines through as a beguiling survivor of its history, adapting whilst retaining its hold on certain citizens and visitors. I had never before considered visiting Riga. After reading this collection, I am tempted.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Comma Press.

Book Review: Soviet Milk

Soviet Milk, by Nora Ikstena (translated by Margita Gailitis), is the first title in Peirene Press’s new Home In Exile series. It is set in Latvia during the years of Russian occupation, between 1969 and 1989. It chillingly depicts how ordinary lives are scarred by a regime that works to control how people think, rewarding informants and punishing those who will not conform to state sanctioned voice and behaviour.

The story is told from the points of view of two women, an unamed mother and her daughter, although just as important is a third woman, the grandmother, whose love and desire for life holds the family together. These three generations must navigate the daily challenges and hardship of enforced communism, and the mental toll cultural theft takes. The mother struggles to cope, her despair manifesting in an inability to nurture her child or appreciate what the grandmother has suffered, and continues to due to the mother’s ongoing behaviour.

“Sometimes a demonic force seemed to possess her, compelling her to destroy everything around her, especially the love of those she held dearest”

The mother was born near the end of the Second World War, her father taken by soldiers and deported when he tried to protect their home from a mindless military raid. After several years the grandmother remarried, the step-grandfather adopting his new wife’s child. The mother worked hard at school and became a doctor. She had no wish to bear her own child.

The daughter was born as Latvia was being forcibly absorbed by the USSR. Unlike the mother and grandmother she has no memories of their home nation. She is cared for by the grandmother, her mother an enigmatic, sometimes frightening, figure reeking of cigarette smoke and disinfectant.

In a country that rewards women for bearing children and expects them to put up with domestic abuse in order to maintain the facade of happy family life within an ideal communist state, the mother is an aberration. She is tolerated due to her skills as a medic, then punished when she steps beyond the bounds of accepted practice in order to help a patient. Unable to find work in her home city she moves to a country area, thereby wrenching the daughter from her beloved grandparents. Without their support both girl and woman find themselves adrift.

The daughter becomes the carer, finding ways to cope amongst peers who treat her with suspicion. Like the mother she is intelligent but suffers communism’s limitations. When a teacher introduces the daughter to texts that are not on the proscribed lists she becomes aware of the existence of wider cultural influences. The state will not tolerate such deviations from its citizens, even as it allows access to its banned history and art to segregated tourists.

Switching between the mother’s and daughter’s points of view, the reader is offered an insight into the mother’s manic and depressive episodes and the impact these have on those who care for her. Over them all hangs the shadow of a state that has imprisoned them, its mental shackles insidious and ever more malignant.

The tale is told in powerful and evocative prose that never fails to hold the reader’s attention. The narrative is spare yet elicits a depth of feeling that puts the reader into the heart of often harrowing situations. Beautifully rendered this offers a history of a time and place I had not previously considered. There is much to ponder given contemporary governments’ desire to manipulate its people’s prejudices and ability to reason.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.