The Madonnas of Leningrad – Debra Dean

“What is left that is heartbreaking? Not death; death is ordinary. What is heartbreaking is the sight of a single gull lifting effortlessly from a street lamp. Its wings unfurl like silk scarves against the mauve sky, and Marina hears the rustle of its feathers. What is heartbreaking is that there is still beauty in the world”

Marina, suffering from Alzheimer’s finds herself living more and more in the past with the present is being eaten away. While unable to remember her children and grandchildren with much clarity, she finds herself roaming the Hermitage, where she was a tour guide before war years and helped pack it all away, and recalling the paintings from her “memory palace” with greater lucidity. The book opens in 1941, where erstwhile Soviet Union is getting ready to fight the Germans with high optimism at Luga. Marina says goodbye to her childhood friend Dimitr with agreement to getting married when he is back.

As the war forces draw closer to Leningrad, Marina finds herself putting more and more knowledge of The Hermitage away into her memory palace, while fighting the cold and hunger and despair which is pervasive all around her. The details about 250 grams of bread lasting a person through the day is beyond heartbreaking. Amidst this calamitous world, Marina finds herself pregnant, which provides her with a reason not to give up.

The story is written in present, when Marina is over eighty years old and surrounded by her family, and her mind keeps taking her back to the past that must be preserved. Marina and Dimitri (her husband) have locked up the war years into deep recesses, so much so that their children are unaware of why mother insists on no food being wasted at all. When Marina, inadvertently mentions living in a cellar with hundreds of people and eating glue, the knowledge is shocking to them.

At the end, we find everyone searching for Marina, since she seems to have disappeared in her quest to bring chocolates over to those who are fading away from hunger, and is found hiding in a fireplace of a building under construction. She is discovered by a worker who arrives at work on a Monday morning, where Marina goes on to show him the beauty in nothing and everything around him “She was showing me the world”

This book is a pleasure to read. If you enjoy art and the old masters, this book helps you visualise some of the famous works. It helps understand the everyday life in Soviet Union during war and of course, engages the emotions of the reader with heart wrenching loss of memory, while your dear ones can only stand by, helpless, watching you fade away, gradually.

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