Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė
translated by Delija Valiukenas
Yes, a memoir: not my favourite genre, as regular readers of this blog will know. Initially, a little confused by her account of the journey, I regretted my choice. But things became clearer, if starker, when the deportees were set down on the island of Trofimovsk in the Arctic Circle, shortly before the ten months of winter begin.
After the exiles have built their crude shelters, Dalia is put to work transporting heavy logs from the coast. As if ignorant or indifferent to the conditions of slave labour, the teacher actually scolds her when she’s late for school in the afternoon. But while the Lithuanians and other prisoners work twelve-hour shifts, or longer, on a small ration of bread, the supervisors are lining their pockets and bellies.
Starvation and poor sanitation bring scurvy, tuberculosis and dysentery and, in the permafrost, it’s a challenge to bury the dead. Yet, despite poor health, blizzards and the appalling conditions, Dalia is determined to survive. She’s not ashamed to steal from the Soviets and is unrepentant when caught. Furthermore, despite her debasement, she is able to enjoy the spectacle of the northern lights. So, painful as it is to visit the Soviet Gulag, even vicariously, I couldn’t imagine a better guide than Dalia Grinkevičiūtė. Thanks to Peirene Press for my review copy.
The Key by Kathryn Hughes
Fearful staff, poorly trained and unsupported, has created a culture where cruelty overrides compassion and, whether reluctantly or willingly, patients have little choice but to conform. But compliance and institutionalisation is not a cure for mental distress and disorder, and only a lucky few are discharged. When the handsome Dr Lambourn takes a special interest in her case, it looks as if Amy might have a chance.
Although unqualified in psychotherapy, he invites Amy for sessions on the couch. To my surprise, given her previous reluctance, she opens up about her idyllic early childhood and recent attempt to drown both herself and her stepmother’s baby; further to my surprise, given the psychiatrist’s badgering questions and her fragile state of mind, the treatment itself does no harm. But, at a time when staff and patient boundaries were so rigid, he’s extremely rash in escorting her outside the grounds. The consequences are tragic, especially as Amy’s account, considered delusional, is partly why she remains locked up for another twenty-odd years.
This novel’s strengths are in the realm of Amy’s situation, which I found all too credible, and in the machinations of the plot. Although I considered some of the twists and turns unlikely, I enjoyed how others took me totally by surprise. The characters and writing style suggest this popular author’s third novel is intended for the women’s magazine market. Thanks to Hodder Review for my copy.
Although the callout for a 99-word story about shards came after I’d posted these reviews, mine belongs here, not only because I couldn’t find an association with my post on female Australian authors for Australia Day. Among the many things I omitted from my review of The Key is that Amy secretes a shard of broken crockery in a cushion in order to defend herself against attack. Here I’ve adapted a scene from my possibly third novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home in another fictional psychiatric hospital thirty-odd years later.
When Matty awakes, she is hugging that dratted photograph. Brushing her hand across her torso, the glass splinters on the floor tiles, jingling like xylophone keys. The maid will sweep up the shards.
Of greater concern is Matty’s doppelgänger, now free to make mischief with no protective pane. Everybody knows Matilda told such dreadful lies, it made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes. But a dissembler gets her comeuppance eventually, and rightly so.
Matty must distance herself from Matilda, however, lest she be punished for her crimes. Otherwise, when Matilda shouts Fire! Matty would be mocked by Little liar!