Saturday 19 September 2020

The Girl From The Hermitage by Molly Gartland

The Girl from the Hermitage by Molly Gartland

Published by Lightning Books on the 23rd April 2020.

How I got this book: Received a review copy via Rachel's Random Resources

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Eye Books (20% off with discount code HERMITAGETOUR. Free UK p&p)

Amazon UK / / 

The Book Depository / Waterstones

Galina was born into a world of horrors. So why does she mourn its passing?

SHORTLISTED: Impress Prize

LONGLISTED: Bath Novel Award

LONGLISTED: Grindstone Novel Award

It is December 1941, and eight-year-old Galina and her friend Vera are caught in the siege of Leningrad, eating soup made of wallpaper, with the occasional luxury of a dead rat. Galina’s artist father Mikhail has been kept away from the front to help save the treasures of the Hermitage. Its cellars could now provide a safe haven, provided Mikhail can navigate the perils of a portrait commission from one of Stalin’s colonels.

Nearly forty years later, Galina herself 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 embarks upon 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 Galina’s familiar world changes out of all recognition.

Warm, wise and utterly enthralling, Molly Gartland’s debut novel guides us from the old communist world, with its obvious terrors and its more surprising comforts, into the glitz and bling of 21st-century St Petersburg. Galina’s story is at once a compelling page-turner and an insightful meditation on ageing and nostalgia.

I am so glad to have been given the opportunity to read and review The Girl From The Hermitage as part of this Rachel's Random Resources blog tour. My attention was captured by the very first heartbreaking scene - of a man scraping dried paste from wallpaper to make soup for his daughter during the bitter siege of Leningrad - and I remained engrossed in this accomplished novel from that moment on. I was amazed to realise that The Girl From The Hermitage is actually Molly Gartland's debut novel! Her characterisation, dialogue, world building and narrative are so spot on throughout this book that I had assumed it to be the work of a veteran novelist. I  understand that Gartland spent several years in Russia herself and I felt that her experience of the Russian people and culture really shines through. This story is grounded in truth, while also being compelling historical fiction. We see Galina mature from starving war child to Perestroika-baffled matriarch and her poignant nostalgia for her past reminded me strongly of the nonfiction accounts I read in Dancing Bears by Witold Szablowski.

Art, particularly the psychology of its creation, plays a vital part in The Girl From The Hermitage and I loved the scenes where Galina immerses herself in her art as an escape from the realities of her situation. Gartland evokes the inconveniences of Soviet style communal living in the city and I freely admit to being envious of Galina's rural dacha. The constants of her art and the dacha provide Galina an anchor while we watch the Soviet Union disintegrate around her which I thought was such an interesting way to witness this time of great social change for Russia. The Girl From The Hermitage is a fascinating story, deftly and sensitively told, which I highly recommend to historical fiction fans.

Meet 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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