Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena
First published in Latvian as Mates Piens by Dienas Gramata in Latvia in 2015. English language translation by Margita Gailitis published by Peirene Press in March 2018.

How I got this book:
Bought the ebook from Amazon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The literary bestseller that took the Baltics by storm now published for the first time in English.

This novel considers the effects of Soviet rule on a single individual. The central character in the story tries to follow her calling as a doctor. But then the state steps in. She is deprived first of her professional future, then of her identity and finally of her relationship with her daughter. Banished to a village in the Latvian countryside, her sense of isolation increases. Will she and her daughter be able to return to Riga when political change begins to stir?

I ultimately did enjoy reading Soviet Milk, but it took me longer than it should have done to get into the story. I didn't initially realise that the two alternating voices were those of the mother and her daughter - I saw them as one woman narrating different eras in her life so was confused by the frequent jumps in time. Ikstena, I have since learned from other reviews, isn't an author to mollycoddle her readers!

Soviet Milk is a novel of women, of dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships, of national identity and of personal freedom. At its heart is one unnamed woman who, prevented from following her dream career, abandons herself instead to substance abuse as she no longer particularly cares whether she lives or dies. Ikstena has her identify at one point with her daughter's caged hamster - able occasionally to run free within the parameters defined by an outside power (for the hamster, this temporary freedom extends to the walls of the daughter's room), but then abruptly reminded of her powerlessness as playtime ends and the cage door is again locked. The woman and her own mother can clearly remember when Latvia was an independent nation so are fully aware of everything they lost to Soviet rule. The woman's daughter only knows the Soviet regime and her primary focus has always been mothering to her mother. These dynamics are complicated, but poignantly rendered and in such emotional depth that, on finishing Soviet Milk, I felt as though I had read a much longer novel. This is only really a novella. I'm not sure I will now rush to read more of Ikstena's books, but I think the themes and scenes explored in Soviet Milk will remain with me. I feel this is a book to be mulled over at greater length in the days to come.

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Books by Nora Ikstena / Historical fiction / Books from Latvia

1 comment:

  1. Yeah this for sure is one of those 'thinking' books that can suck you in long after you've finished it.