European History

Two novels with epistolary power

“Letters mingle souls,” wrote the poet John Donne. In the novels Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay (Harper Collins, $25.99) and Far to Go by Alison Pick (Harper Perennial, $14.99), letters play a pivotal role. The letters in Russian Winter are written by murdered Soviet poet Viktor Elsin. Or at least that’s the contention of Grigori Solodin, a shy, bookish professor of Russian. Grigori has translated the letters, along with Elsin’s poetry, but their origin remains elusive for they bear neither salutation nor signature. He suspects they were written to Elsin’s wife, Nina Revskaya, a Bolshoi ballerina. Grigori’s interest in the letters — and in Nina herself, whom he has attempted to contact — is more than academic, for he suspects that the letters are the key to finding the biological parents who gave him to his adoptive family.

Grigori’s story is interwoven with that of Nina herself, now in her eighties, as she prepares to auction off her impressive jewelry collection. The novel moves back and forth from Nina’s youth in Soviet Russia to present-day Boston. Grigori secretly thinks that Nina is his biological mother, and has, along with the letters, an exquisite amber necklace that he feels is another link in the chain that binds them. Initially, Nina rebuffs Grigori’s overtures. But then she recalls her long-dead husband, and other characters as well: his friend Gersh, a brilliant Jewish composer singled out for persecution; her friend Vera, forced to relocate with her grandmother after her parents were denounced and sent away. The result is a suspenseful, elegant novel whose grace matches that of the ballerina whose story lies at its heart.

In Far from Home, Canadian author Alison Pick uses letters as lyrical punctuation or small poetic digressions. The story, set on the eve of the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, is narrated by Marta, nanny to four-year old Pepik. Pepik’s parents, Anneliese and Pavel Bauer, are assimilated Jews; he is a prosperous factory owner and she his pampered wife. Each reacts differently to the German threat. Pavel wants to reconnect with his Jewish heritage; Anneliese wants to escape. When Pavel resists, Annelise takes Pepik to be baptized by a local priest.

Early in the novel, Pavel tells Marta about his brother, brutally knocked to the street by a gang of Nazi thugs and forced to scrub the pavement as they taunt him. When he asks for water, they make him drink slop from the pail, glass shards and all. They then beat him with the tailpipe of his own car, and leave him for dead. Sitting in the Bauer’s comfortable parlor, Marta can barely believe, let alone comprehend, what she hears until, startled by the sound of a gunshot, she and Pavel rush to the window. The town square is filled with soldiers. “A young girl cried openly as she watched a uniformed back retreat across the square. Her man going off to fight. She held a single rose in her hand, the petals pointed toward the ground like a magic wand that had lost its power.”

Pick limns the ensuing events with economy and precision. Letters from Pavel and others are scattered throughout, like shredded bits of a map that will ultimately guide the reader home. Harrowing and unrelenting, Far to Go offers a fresh lens through which to view a familiar story. 

Yona Zeldis McDonough is Lilith’s fiction editor. Her fourth novel, A Wedding In Great Neck, is due out from New American Library in October 2012.