How does a young Russian learn to write such exquisitely lyrical English? Every page of Elena Gorokhova's coming-of-age-in-the-Soviet-block memoir unveils the magic of her origins. She is a credit to the trickery of a grandmother who assuaged her children's hunger by crumbling a sugar cube and bread to make a mountain of crumbs, telling them: "Look at how much you've got."
"I wish my mother had come from Leningrad," Gorokhova begins, conjuring the city of "granite embankments and lace ironworks, of pearly domes buttressing the low sky" that "would have left a permanent mark of refinement on her soul." This wistful opening instantly collides with reality: her mother's hometown is a dreary place "where chickens lived in the kitchen and a pig squatted under the stairs. . . . She came from where they lick plates."
Her mother offers a unique presence, "a mirror image of my motherland: overbearing, protective, difficult to leave. Our house was the seat of the politburo, my mother its permanent chairman." As a young physician, her mother had dismayed her superiors by petitioning Chairman Stalin until Moscow released 15,000 rubles to turn her tiny apartment into a four-bed maternity ward.
Momentous things happen when the author, Lena, is ten, but decadent emotions elude the household. Her mother and sister carry her frail father down from their two-room apartment to a taxi that will take him to the hospital, where children are not allowed. Each day, mother and daughters take the lurching elevator down to the green phone booth. A woman's voice harshly delivers news of her father's death: "no matter how I fumble inside myself, I cannot locate grief." Lena does not know how to feel, and her mother "keeps watering the plants, walking from one windowsill to the next, not noticing that the water is rising . . . dripping onto my English notebook, the only evidence left of my summer of vocabulary lists, irregular verbs, and the twelve tricky tenses."
Her mother wanted Lena to study medicine; her father hoped she would enter the English school, though this bizarre language would introduce their daughter to radical notions, like that indefinable term "privacy."
Lena earned money from clandestine tutoring jobs. She taught American students Russian, eventually married one, and came to the U.S. Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and his seminar at Southampton Writers Conference inspired her debut in this stunning memoir. Gorokhova indelibly reveals how much of our national treasure originated abroad.
Anne Grant writes reviews in addition to her case histories about children suffering legal abuse in custody courts.