“Your problem is you have a Russian soul,” Anna’s mother tells her. In 1980, Anna is a naïve UConn senior studying abroad in Moscow at the height of the Cold War—and a second-generation Russian Jew raised on a calamitous family history of abandonment, Czarist-era pogroms, and Soviet-style terror. As Anna dodges date rapists, KGB agents, and smooth-talking black marketeers while navigating an alien culture for the first time, she must come to terms with the aspects of the past that haunt her own life. With its intricate insight into the everyday rhythms of an almost forgotten way of life in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, Forget Russia is a disquieting multi-generational epic about coming of age, forgotten history, and the loss of innocence in all of its forms.
First of all, I want to say a massive thank you to the author, who reached out via my blog to see if I would be interested in reviewing her book. Lisa had taken the time to read my blog, noticed my enthusiasm for Molly Gartland’s wonderful debut novel, The Girl From The Hermitage, and on the basis of that, thought that Forget Russia might be my sort of book. It’s so lovely to get review requests from people who have carefully matched their book to my interests, and in this case, Lisa was 100% right! Forget Russia is exactly my type of book, and I am absolutely thrilled to have had the privilege of reading it.
The analogy of Russian dolls is almost too easy, but I kind of want to use it, as Bordetsky-Williams has created a structure that really does feel like a puzzle being pieced together. The sense of the past rippling forward, pursuing the generations, is skilfully done: this novel is rich in echoes and resonance. In fact, it reminded me a lot of Heidi James’ brilliant novel The Sound Mirror, in the way that it shows how trauma is passed down through generations. The focus is mostly on the women: Anna’s first person narrative follows her search for answers about her family in Moscow in 1980, her attempts to understand the way in which the experiences of her family have shaped her. The tragedy of her great-grandmother’s rape and murder sets in motion a chain of voices, and with a lovely sense of movement through both time and space (journeys to and from America feature heavily in this novel), we are rocked towards a deeply satisfying conclusion.
The novel is so well researched and so vividly imagined that it has the feel of a documentary. This sense is bolstered by the use of letters, of snatches of poetry and folk song lyrics, and the sectioning off of the story into subtitled chapters. Anna’s sections in particular have an almost journalistic quality, blurring the line between fiction and memoir, and her observational skills and empathetic manner build up a wonderfully detailed and realistic portrait of life in the Soviet Union. It is a setting rich in secrecy, in mystery, and it marries with Anna’s personal search for answers beautifully. But Anna is not merely an observer – she faces her own traumas, her own emotional entanglements, all of which add further layers to this complex, expertly shaped story.
There is so much to admire in Forget Russia: it is a novel that is more than the sum of its parts. It seems to take the genre of historical fiction and merge it with a kind of journalistic sensibility, adding in a dose of family memoir and self-exploration, so that while this may be fiction, it rings startlingly true. I love it when a book transports you to a time and place you know little about, and leaves you with a feeling of greater understanding, and Bordetsky-Williams’ novel delivers this sense in spades. Balancing the sweeping and the specific with expert skill, the author takes us on a journey that shines a light on a fascinating stretch of history, and on characters whose stories deserve to be remembered. I highly recommend this book, and am so grateful to have had the chance to read it.