Galina was born into a world of horrors. So why does she mourn its passing?
It is December 1941, and eight-year-old Galina and her friend Vera are caught in the siege of Leningrad, eating wallpaper soup and dead rats. Galina’s artist father Mikhail has been kept away from the front to help save the treasures of the Hermitage. Its cellars could provide a safe haven, as long as Mikhail can survive the perils of a commission from one of Stalin’s colonels.
Three decades on, Galina is a teacher at the Leningrad Art Institute. What ought to be a celebratory weekend at her forest dacha turns sour when she makes an unwelcome discovery. The painting she starts that day will hold a grim significance for the rest of her life, as the old Soviet Union makes way for the new Russia and her world changes out of all recognition.
Warm, wise and utterly enthralling, Molly Gartland’s debut novel guides us from the old communist era, with its obvious terrors and its more surprising comforts, into the bling of 21st-century St Petersburg. Galina’s story is an insightful meditation on ageing and nostalgia as well as a compelling page-turner.
Everything about this book, from the title to the cover to the blurb, had me incredibly intrigued from the moment I saw it. As such, I jumped at the chance to be on the blog tour for The Girl From the Hermitage – many thanks to Rachel’s Random Resources for my spot. I received a digital copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
I’m a huge fan of historical fiction, and am always keen to read about places and periods I don’t know much about. The siege of Leningrad isn’t a setting I have read about before, and I feel like I learned a lot from reading this story. The opening chapter plunges the reader right into the desperate situation faced by the city’s inhabitants, narrating in vivid present tense how Mikhail struggles to keep his daughter alive in impossible circumstances. The sensory detail and obvious attention to accuracy in terms of research creates an immediate sense of trust in the storyteller – I was ALL IN, right from the beginning, plunged deep into the world that Gartland builds up with such care and skill.
We first meet Galya as an eight year old, ill, starving, cold, clinging onto life by her fingertips; it is a hugely impactful introduction, setting the stakes high in the opening pages. At first, I presumed the majority of the action of the novel would take place at the time of the siege, following Mikhail, Galya, Vera and Anna, unravelling the story of how they got there, and detailing how they managed to overcome the hardships. I buckled in for a wild ride, a dramatic, heroic tale of survival in a time of war. And then, the book surprised me. It flipped my expectation on its head and offered me something quite different, and far more interesting than I could have predicted. Something really special happened to me while reading this book, and I’m going to try and explain it below.
When the narrative jumped forward and I found myself following Galina, as a wife and a mother, and later a grandmother, through the post-Soviet changes and the family dramas that form the next stages of her story, I had a strange experience of feeling as if I was entering into a conversation with the protagonist as I read the novel:
Me: Oh, you’re a woman now, I was enjoying that story about the Hermitage. I thought we were staying there for a bit.
Galina: Just wait and see what is happening here.
Me: Oh, but it was so dramatic…
Galina: I can’t be the girl from the Hermitage forever. For survivors, life goes on, we grow up, we have families, we have to deal with the more mundane matters of existence, we have to leave the trauma behind and find a way to keep on going.
Me: Oh I see. You’re right, that’s much more interesting.
Galina: I told you. You need to trust me.
I apologise to Molly Gartland for putting words into her character’s mouth, but I really did feel as if Galina, as she gradually transforms into the wise old Babushka, was speaking to me through this book, patiently explaining that the ‘what next’ is just as important as the Big Event, the trauma, the time that can be neatly summed up in a striking title. Galina is not just ‘the girl from the Hermitage’ – she is so much more: an artist, a landowner, a matriarch, a woman trying to come to terms with the personal and political changes around her. It is testament to the author’s incredible skill (even more so when we consider that this is Gartland’s debut) that the voice of Galina came to me so clearly, with such wisdom. I really feel like I learned an awful lot from this novel, and I am beyond exciting to see what this incredibly talented writer produces next. I highly recommend this book: it is beautiful, intelligent, confident writing, full of characters who will stay with you and maybe even change you.
About the author:
Originally from Michigan, Molly Gartland worked in Moscow from 1994 to 2000 and has been fascinated by Russian culture ever since.
She has an MA in Creative Writing from St Mary’s University, Twickenham and lives in London.
The manuscript for her debut novel The Girl from the Hermitage was shortlisted for the Impress Prize and longlisted for the Mslexia Novel Competition, the Bath Novel Award and Grindstone Novel Award.
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