Wednesday, 4 August 2021

Red Crosses by Sasha Filipenko

Red Crosses by Sasha Filipenko
First published as Красный Крест in Russian by Время in Russia in April 2017. English language translation by Brian James Baer and Ellen Vayner published by Europa Editions tomorrow, the 5th August 2021.

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A heart-wrenching novel exploring both personal and collective memory spanning Russian history from Stalin's terror to the present day.

Tatiana Alexeyevna is 90 years old and she’s losing her memory. To find her way in her Soviet-era apartment block, she resorts to painting red crosses on the doors leading back to her apartment. But she still remembers the past in vivid detail.

Alexander, a young man whose life has been brutally torn in two, would like nothing better than to forget the tragic events that have brought him to Minsk. When he moves into the flat next door to Tatiana’s, he’s cornered by the loquacious old lady. Reluctant at first, he’s soon drawn into Tatiana’s life story – one told urgently, before her memories of the Russian 20th century and its horrors are wiped out.

The two forge an unlikely friendship, a pact against forgetting giving rise to a new sense of hope in the future. Deeply moving, with flashes of humour, Red Crosses is a shining narrative in the tradition of the great Russian novel.

The first aspect of Red Crosses that caught my attention was the similarities between elderly Tatiana in this novel and grandmother Appamma in A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam: both formerly strong women trapped by the frailties of aging and striving to maintain as much of their previous independence as they can for as long as they can, yet also desperate for companionship and human connections. I love Tatiana as a character. Often bluntly direct in her responses to Alexander, she is also a wonderfully engaging narrator with a particularly grim story to tell. I think, on the strength of Tatiana alone, that Red Crosses would appeal to fans of Ruta Sepetys' historical novels. I was also reminded of Good People by Nir Baram and Daniil Kharms' sharply observed essays.

Alexander is perhaps less immediately appealing a character, but I appreciated that seeing through his eyes enabled me to understand the contrasts between these two apparently very different people who discover they actually share similar griefs. Filipenko's inclusion of original historical documents - letters, telegrams and reports - gives a real sense of authenticity to the fictional tale woven around them and, like the Swiss Red Cross workers, I struggled to comprehend official Soviet attitudes.

Red Crosses is a pretty dark novel set mostly in a horrific period of history, but I loved reading it. Tatiana's need to come to terms with what was done to her and her family, as well as the wrongs she inflicted upon others, is beautifully portrayed, especially in the light of her encroaching dementia. This woman could easily have been reduced to a caricature, resulting in the novel itself losing plausibility, but instead Filipenko has written a perfectly balanced work that I am grateful to have had this opportunity to read.

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