Verdict: I don’t even know.
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Genre: Memoir, Creative Non-Fiction
Published by Simon & Schuster, February 12th 2019
An arresting memoir equal parts refugee-coming-of-age story, feminist manifesto, and meditation on motherhood, displacement, gender politics, and art that follows award-winning writer Sophia Shalmiyev’s flight from the Soviet Union, where she was forced to abandon her estranged mother, and her subsequent quest to find her.
Born to a Russian mother and an Azerbaijani father, Shalmiyev was raised in the stark oppressiveness of 1980s Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). An imbalance of power and the prevalence of antisemitism in her homeland led her father to steal Shalmiyev away, emigrating to America, abandoning her estranged mother, Elena. At age eleven, Shalmiyev found herself on a plane headed west, motherless and terrified of the new world unfolding before her.
Now a mother herself, in Mother Winter Shalmiyev depicts in urgent vignettes her emotional journeys as an immigrant, an artist, and a woman raised without her mother. She tells of her early days in St. Petersburg, a land unkind to women, wayward or otherwise; her tumultuous pit-stop in Italy as a refugee on her way to America; the life she built for herself in the Pacific Northwest, raising two children of her own; and ultimately, her cathartic voyage back to Russia as an adult, where she searched endlessly for the alcoholic mother she never knew. Braided into her physical journey is a metaphorical exploration of the many surrogate mothers Shalmiyev sought out in place of her own—whether in books, art, lovers, or other lost souls banded together by their misfortunes.
By all accounts, I should have loved this book as it ticks all my boxes; I generally enjoy memoirs written by women and those that focus a mother-daughter relationship particularly, I love memoirs that are told mostly unchronologically and academically, hell, I adored the first sentences (“Russian sentences begin backwards. When I learned English well enough to love it, I realized my inner tongue was running in the wrong direction.”) but somehow this did not translate into me getting on with the book.
Sophia Shalmiyev tells of her relationship with her mother, or rather of her relationship of the hole that her mother left in her life. Drawing on literature and theory and many things in between she attempts to paint a picture of that fundamental loss in her life. Born in Soviet era Leningrad to an abusive father and alcoholic mother, Sophia struggles with the sense of loss incurred by her father kicking out her mother and then later emigrating to the US without her.
I did find her language clumsy but not in a way that improved my reading experience (which odd sentence structure sometimes can do for me as it makes me read slowly and carefully); now, I am not a native speaker so this might very well be a fault with me rather than with the book. For a book this abstract and intensely introspective, I would have liked the language to be sharper and more precise though (something that Maggie Nelson – whose work this has been compared to – does without a fail). There was also an abundance of metaphors here that did not work for me at all and usually took me out of the reading flow (for example: “The decade is a bronze disease patina – the green paste – on a doorbell that rings when you show up, and you do not show up very often.”). In the end, while I am not usually somebody who judges books on a sentence to sentence basis, I seem to have done so with this book, which lost me early with its vagueness in prose and never recaptured my interest.
I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Simon & Schuster in exchange for an honest review.