There’s a theme in literature that explores the powerful connection between art and memory. The best example I know of is Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, otherwise known as my favorite book. But it’s something we all experience. I can’t always remember the fashion or music of a certain time in my life, but I can tell you want I was reading and how it affected me.
The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean, takes the connection between art and memory and lets it casually supplant everything else in the characters’ lives. As Marina’s memory dissolves with age, she recalls her time in the Hermitage Museum of Leningrad during World War II. Flashback is tricky. It has to be used wisely, but like the best books that alternate points of view, the important trick is to make both time periods engaging enough that the reader gets a little anxious when you change the channel, then they find themselves captivated by the new chapter before you reverse course again. Dean manages Marina’s past with a delicate touch and a compelling perspective, but each time you find yourself in Marina’s present, you are anxious to get back to the past.
As with so many recent entries in literary fiction, Madonnas is a brief book, only an inch thick and 228 pages. Yet it captures important turning points in a human life. If good writing is “life with all the boring parts taken out,” then Dean accomplishes her goal. Not that the book is all action, plot, or event. Little touches run through the narrative, humanizing moments that reinforce the difference in the chronology. Unfortunately these grounding elements are also some of the weaker points in the narrative, though still they manage to help tease out the mystery. In a way, the chronological shifting also hurts the book’s plot, as you know certain outcomes are inevitable: Marina and her husband Dmitri will survive the war. They will be reunited. Still, Dean had my full attention for most of this novel. She drew me in with the vignettes on art, digressions into discussions of the museum’s missing treasures.
Madonnas is a touching, memorable little book, but I have to echo Alfred’s comment that the daughter’s point of view was a distraction. It made me wonder what history is slipping away from us as our grandparents pass. What learning techniques? What arts? A vast history of personal experience slips constantly away from us, ineffable, and ever eroded. It made me want to sit down with my grandfather and ask him to poor out his own memories of the War before they vanish.