The Madonnas of Leningrad
An elderly Russian-born woman is losing her grip on reality as Alzheimer’s steals one bit after another of her memory. It is a battle she will not win. But it is not the first time her body has pushed her to the outer limits of sanity, and her memories of that struggle for survival fifty years ago are increasingly the only ones she trusts as lucid.
In The Madonnas of Leningrad, intertwined narratives of past and present reveal that in her youth, Marina had been a docent at the vast Hermitage museum in Leningrad. When it became apparent that the Nazis were on the march, the museum staff members began taking down and crating all the Masterworks to be shipped by train to safety. Despite Moscow’s optimistic propaganda, Leningrad is soon besieged—and Marina, with hundreds of staff members and their families, take refuge from the shelling by moving into the bowels of their beloved museum and living on rations of used tea leaves and sawdust bread. Many do not survive the record-low temperatures of the first winter. Marina’s only diversion from starvation is her new obsession of creating a “memory palace”; dragging her emaciated body through the museum’s frozen galleries, she conjures up every line, color, and shadow of each of the magnificent paintings that once hung from the now-deserted frames, pleading with the missing Madonnas to save them all.
This first novel by Debra Dean is at once an homage to the Masters, a portrait of one family’s losses to Alzheimer’s, and a testimony to the power of the imagination and the endurance of beauty in bleakness. It is realized with sumptuous language and tender but never sappy emotion. The narrative structure is somewhat unorthodox, rotating between both past and present and between Marina’s and her daughter’s points of view, but it is an effective method of revealing to the reader secrets that Marina never reveals to her children, and of maintaining the narrative thread even as the disease pulls Marina further into herself. Read it to satisfy interests in art or Russian history, to get acquainted with a talented new writer, or simply for the sake of an unusual story well told. I’ll definitely be watching for her future novels.