Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Madonnas of Leningrad

The Madonnas of Leningrad: A Novel (P.S.) The Madonnas of Leningrad: A Novel by Debra Dean

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Memory allows us to survive under duress. Memory also plays tricks on us, incorporating magical elements into our lives. Memories exist of things that could not possibly have happened, and yet that is how we remember them. Marina's hallucinations, brought on by hunger, enable her to see visions in the paintings, and allow her to process her rape on the rooftop as a visitation by a god. These become survival mechanisms that allow her to accept and incorporate the events, without being certain what, if anything, actually took place. Her mind finds beauty, and this quality also enables her to survive. Anya, the babushka, teaches Marina to build a "memory palace" in order to recall the paintings that once hung on the walls of the Hermitage Museum. Recreating the memory of those paintings, stored away to protect them from the ravages of the Second World War, allows Marina to keep her mind sharp and focus on beauty when the rest of her life is hardship.

The book moves back and forth between the contemporary Marina who is suffering from Alzheimer's, and the young woman who was a tour guide at the Hermitage Museum and who lived in the museum's cellar that was used as a bomb shelter during the war.

Author Debra Dean juxtaposes descriptions of the paintings as an indirect commentary on the characters' lives in a way that is evocative without being heavy-handed. What might have been trite, sensationalist or cruel, transcends to become hyperrealist and universal.

The book is slightly uneven, in that the story told in the past is more interesting and compelling than that of the contemporary characters. It could be argued that this is also true of people with Alzheimer's, that their memories of the past are more vivid than their present, but that does not mean that this makes a good literary device if the contemporary story is noticeably weaker. With Alzheimer's, the rooms of Marina's memory palace are emptying. Still, this book had moments of high beauty, and overall I recommend it.

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