Saturday, 9 November 2019

Isolde by Irina Odoevtseva

Isolde by Irina Odoevtseva
First published in Russian in France in 1929. English language translation by Bryan Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg published by Pushkin Press on the 4th July 2019.

One of my 2019 New Release Challenge reads, my 1920s read for my 2019-20 Decade Challenge, and my Book Of The Month for November 2019

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first English translation of a pioneering Russian writer: a hypnotically dark classic of love, deceit and wayward youth in Paris

Disaffected and restless, teenage siblings Liza and Nikolai are left to their own devices in Biarritz by their distant mother. When an English boy, Cromwell, sees Liza alone on a beach, he imagines she is the romantic beauty Isolde. Infatuated, he falls in with their group of Russian émigrés, introducing them to the escapist pleasures of nightlife, of champagne dinners and dancing in jazz bars.

Initially dazzled, Liza feels a growing sense of isolation and anxiety as the youths’ world closes in on itself and their darker drives begin to stir. Haunted by feverish memories of Russia, she plots to return to the homeland she hardly remembers.

Deemed scandalous on first publication for its unflinching depiction of nascent sexuality and wayward adolescence, Isolde is a startlingly fresh, disturbing portrait of a lost generation of Russian exiles, now in English for the first time.

First published in 1929, Irina Odoevtseva's then-shocking novel, Isolde, was republished by Pushkin Press in a new English translation this summer and I am thrilled to have had the chance to read this book. I loved the story which I thought felt very fresh and modern in its style even while it is also absolutely of its time. Odoevtseva was a Russian-Latvian emigrant exiled in France - just like her fictional Liza - and this sense of being apart from one's homeland is one of the major themes of the book. Odoevtseva also explores the shallow callousness of teenagers through the exploits of Liza and her elder brother Nikolai who are frequently bored, but able to cadge money and then left, fatefully, to their own devices. I could see elements of a French-style The Great Gatsby mixed up with Rebel Without A Cause!

I loved the characters of Liza and of her mother, Natasha, even though neither are actually particularly likeable characters. Liza is in her mid-teens and flips between precocious childishness and mimicking adult behaviour in a way which felt authentic. She is desperate for parental love and guidance, but Natasha cares only for herself and her own romantic entanglements, even going so far as to insist her children are orphaned cousins. Natasha's neglect forces aspect of adulthood onto her children way before they are mature enough to cope. I didn't think the male character portrayals were as fully developed, perhaps with the exception of gullible Bunny, but that made a refreshing change!

Odoevtseva caused outrage with Isolde in the late 1920s and I could easily see why, although the shock effect is muted when seen by present-day standards. She never veers into graphic description though and I appreciated the use of Liza's naivete which allows readers to understand the dark actions being carried out around the girl, while she herself is only belatedly aware. Isolde would certainly be suitable for New Adult audience and I hope this new translation rekindles popularity for the story. In my eyes, Isolde deserves to be a classic.

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  1. Glad to hear you liked this one.

  2. Great review! This sounds really good!

    1. I thought Isolde was brilliant! So happy to be able to read this new translation

  3. I only know of one Isolde -- and her name is usually associated with Tristan.

    1. That is a connection here. The young lead character is nicknamed Isolde in the story

  4. I love how you mention it is a refreshing change that the male characters are the less developed ones xD I have to say that this intrigues me quite a bit. I always find it masterful when there are unlikeable characters but it still makes for a good story and you still enjoy reading about them.

    1. I'd happily recommend you to read Isolde. I loved this story :-)


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