Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Time of Women - Elena Chizhova

Elena Chizhova's novel, The Time of Women, won the Russian Booker Prize so when Glagoslav Publications offered me a review copy, I was definitely interested. It's the story of a group of women living together in mid 20th century Moscow.

Antonina is a single mother. She & her daughter, Suzanna, live in a communal apartment with three older women who become Suzanna's "grannies". Of course, they rename Suzanna Sofia & have her secretly baptized. Antonina was lucky to find such a home. She works in a factory & has told the authorities that her daughter is at home with her own mother. She also has to keep secret the fact that Sofia is mute. If her disability was discovered, she would be put into an institution.

The grannies - Glikeria, Yevdokia & Ariadna - love Sofia & soon get used to asking her questions & answering them themselves. As Sofia grows up, she shows talent in her drawings but she is still mute. Through the grannies she learns the history of the Soviet Union & the times before the Revolution. The hard times of war, famine & starvation. The many ways in which the grannies lost their husbands & children until they are now alone except for each other.

Antonina is also essentially alone & struggling to keep food on the table for herself, Sofia & the grannies. The mysterious man who fathered her daughter left her life long ago & Sofia & the grannies are her only family. There's a lot of fascinating detail about life in Soviet times, from the intrusiveness of the factory supervisors who have the right to inquire into the worker's personal lives & report any misdemeanors to the amount of buckwheat flour Antonina can claim as a mother. There are the struggles to afford material to make a dress or buy a TV. When Antonina becomes ill, the grannies realise that they will lose Sofia if her mother dies. She will be sent to an orphanage. They decide that what Sofia needs is a stepfather but that will inevitably bring the time of the women to an end.

The narrative moves from one character to another as we learn the stories of the grannies & watch them scrimping & maneuvering to make ends meet. Sofia's viewpoint is the most fascinating as she observes everything, understands some of what she observes & draws pictures to communicate her thoughts. The final section of the books gives us Sofia's voice as she looks back on her childhood & tells of the grannies as they grew older & more dependent on her. The book has been adapted for the stage in Russia & has been a bestseller. The Time of Women is a fascinating look at Soviet society.

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