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.