The book is about Marina, now eighty-two years old and suffering from Alzheimers. Her memories are escaping her more and more each day. She can no longer take care of simple household duties or even take care of herself; this has fallen to her husband, Dmitri who is fast becoming exhausted. However, she can still remember being back in the war, of working in the Hermitage Museum and of just trying to survive from day to day.
This novel goes back and forth between Marina’s world now and her world back in the time of war. Marina had been a tour guide in the museum in the time before the war. With war time the paintings had all been taken down and stored and only the frames remained on the walls. Marina could walk the rooms committing to memory the paintings that had been there-this became her memory palace. This memory palace became her focus, one of the reasons for her existence at all. I think it was the very thing that kept her sane. She had something that could keep her mind alive through the hunger and terror. I think that is why Marina’s mind kept going back to this specific time in her memory-her memory palace was the one thing that had stayed alive when her memory was failing her.
One quote from the book that struck me was Marina thinking, ‘more distressing than the loss of words is the way that time contracts and fractures and drops her unexpected places’. Alzheimers is an awful disease. I’ve had experience with it in my own family, it is extremely difficult to watch loved one’s suffering from it. Even harder I imagine is that the individual knows in the beginning that their mind is going and it becomes very frustrating and maddening for them and truthfully we don’t know what’s going on in their minds when it’s full blown. It’s very sad I think.
In reading about the author, Debra Dean, she writes that she knew next to nothing about Russia’s role in World War II or the fact that upwards of a million people starved to death during it. She also only had a general knowledge of art history and in fact had never set foot in Russia until after writing the novel. This is so hard to believe when you read her descriptions of both the siege of Leningrad and of all the paintings-they are so vivid you can picture them in your mind. She did a lot of research though in the writing of this novel and it shows.
I feel as though not only did I thorougly enjoy this novel but I learned a great deal. I learned about the siege of Leningrad of which I’m ashamed to say I knew nothing about. I would, however, like to learn more now. I also have a better knowledge about several pieces of art and it has definitely piqued my interest to learn more. The story in the novel is based on the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. They have a wonderful website that you must visit. Click here and it’ll take you there. If you do read the book and you should, this website is a wonderful resource to helping you understand about the paintings that Marina talks about. You can see views inside the museum itself and views from the outside. I plan on visiting much more as there is so much to see.
In addition, on August 21 over at Book Club Girl, there will be online chat with Debra Dean. I can’t wait to listen in. This is a great debut novel for Debra Dean and I hope there will be more. It’s a powerful, emotional and beautiful novel that will linger in my thoughts for a long time. I absolutely recommend it!