The year is 1930. In a small Tartar village, a woman named Zuleikha watches as her husband is murdered by communists. Zuleikha herself is sent into exile, enduring a horrendous train journey to a remote spot on the Angara River in Siberia. Conditions in the camp are tough, and many of her group do not survive the first difficult winter.
As she gradually settles into a routine, Zuleikha starts to get to know her companions. The eclectic group includes a rather dotty doctor, an artist who paints on the sly, and Ignatov, Zuleikha’s husband’s killer. Together, the group starts to build a new life, one that is far removed from those they left behind.
Guzel Yakhina’s smooth prose describes Zuleikha’s adjustment to a new reality and her discovery of a new form of happiness, and covers a range of cultural, ethnic, religious and socio-political issues. This outstanding debut novel from an exciting new talent has been showered with prizes and is capturing the hearts of readers all over the world.
My Rating: ****
I really enjoyed this story. I wanted to give it five stars, but I feel the end was a bit rushed. I also wished the author had given some more background and character development to the varied characters in this story. It was still worth reading.
In the beginning we have a terrified Zuleikha who has a brutal husband, and a soul sucking mother-in-law she calls the “Vampire Hag”. For good reason. This is the 30’s and 40’s Soviet Russia, and farms were required to give up their grain, goods etc. and not much left to survive on. Zuleikha’s husband becomes defiant, and one day after a trip to hide some grain seeds, they are intercepted by Red Army soldiers on their way to the village to confiscate goods. Zuleikha’s husband attempts to attack the leader, Ignatov, who then shoots and kills him.
Zuleikha is sent to a Siberian labor camp where life is nothing but brutal hardships. Many of the people who are brought there do not survive the first winter. Zuleikha also finds out she is pregnant which makes things even more desperate with food. She makes friends and finds all consuming love while a prisoner. She begins to discover her true strength and who she is.
Her love for her son is obsessive and her main reason for living. Under the circumstances she carried him under makes this understandable. Ironically the stern and Red Army officer who shot and killed her husband, Ignatov, is made Commandant of the labor camp. His character will go through some changes, and the relationship he and Zuleikha have is complicated and passionate.
All in all this was a well written piece of Russian literature, and very accurate on the details of that harsh time. As I said I wish the end had been more detailed but I still enjoyed this story. I highly recommend this book to people who have a love of history.
Guzel Yakhina is a Russian author and screenwriter. She is a winner of the Big Book literary prize and the Yasnaya Polyana Literary Award.
Guzel Shamilevna Yakhina was born in Kazan. Her mother is a doctor, while her father is an engineer. She spoke Tatar at home and learned Russian only after she started going to daycare.
She studied at the Department of Foreign Languages in the Tatar State University of Humanities and Education. In 1999, she moved to Moscow. In 2015, she graduated from the Moscow School of Film with a degree in screenwriting.
Yakhina worked in public relations and advertising. She began her writing career with publications in the journals Neva and Oktyabr. Sections of her debut novel Zuleikha appeared in the journal Siberian Fires.
Yakhina’s debut novel is based on the experiences of her grandmother, a Tatar. In the 1930s, as part of dekulakization programme, the Soviets forcefully relocated many Tatars from the European part of Russia to Siberia. Yakhina’s grandmother was among them. She was exiled at a young age and was able to return home only sixteen years later. The novel describes the experiences of Zuleikha, a peasant Tatar woman. Her husband resisted dekulakization and was killed. Zuleikha was transported to Siberia and left in a remote location on Angara River with little means of survival. Zuleikha had to overcome the harsh conditions, build relationships with other exiles and forge her new identity and reasons for living. Yakhina initially wrote the draft as a screenplay, and later rewrote it as a novel. Before being accepted for publication, the novel was rejected by multiple publishers.