Book Review: Matryoshka by Katherine Johnson


About the Book:

When Sara Rose returns to live in her recently deceased grandmother’s Tasmanian cottage, her past and that of her mother and grandmother is ever-present. Sara’s grandmother, Nina Barsova, a Russian post-war immigrant, lovingly raised Sara in the cottage at the foot of Mt Wellington but without ever explaining why Sara’s own mother, Helena, abandoned her as a baby.

Sara, a geneticist, also longs to know the identity of her father, and Helena won’t tell her. Now, estranged not only from her mother, but also from her husband, Sara raises her daughter, Ellie, with a central wish to spare her the same feeling of abandonment that she experienced as a child.

When Sara meets an Afghani refugee separated from his beloved wife and family, she decides to try to repair relations with Helena – but when a lie told by her grandmother years before begins to unravel, a darker truth than she could ever imagine is revealed.

Matryoshka is a haunting and beautifully written story about the power of maternal love, and the danger of secrets passed down through generations.

My Thoughts:

‘There’s a Russian proverb that says The fall of a leaf is a whisper to the living. So, whisper to me, Nina, now that you are gone. Whisper to me. I need your guidance. Tell me a story that makes sense of it all so that I can put all the pieces of the nesting doll that you gave me back together and, one day, tell this story to Ellie, my daughter, your great-granddaughter. For isn’t that what we do in life? Tell ourselves stories? Then retell them at day’s end to our children and grandchildren, so that they will learn and pass down the version we want remembered? One day I will give Ellie the matryoshka, but not yet.’

I seem to be on a streak of reading beautifully touching novels. Matryoshka is a novel that really took me by surprise. It’s written in a way that I like to term ‘quiet’: quietly beautiful, quietly atmospheric, quietly powerful, and quietly unforgettable. This novel made me ache, so many times, for the loss and the love, the inter-generational connections, and the truth of human frailty.

‘I can feel the hand-spun shawl of my grandmother’s love around my shoulders. I want Ellie to feel that love wrapped around her like the layers of the matryoshka Nina gave to me. I want her to experience the same magical childhood that I enjoyed, bejewelled in natural treasures and spectacle.’

Tasmania provides a sublime backdrop for this story. Katherine Johnson has infused the natural world into her narrative with such elegance, wrapping every scene up in a veneer of atmosphere that is entirely unique to Tasmania. It’s clear that Katherine is not only familiar with the landscape of this area, but that she holds it dear and has the skill to convey this.

‘I picture the view from the summit when the mist clears: all the way to the wild southwest, still mysterious and, in parts, unchanged since the first white men – also immigrants of a kind – set their heavy feet here two centuries ago. There, if you walk off the track, you might be the first person of any origin to put your foot upon that exact square metre of earth, so wild and inaccessible are parts of this island.’

Sara is at a crossroads within her life. Beginning again on account of her husband leaving her, she’s also coming to terms with the loss of her beloved grandmother, the woman who raised her. She’s questioning things about herself, particularly with regard to her failed marriage. She wants to give her daughter a childhood similar to the one she had, but free of the notions of abandonment that Sara herself has carted around with her for her entire life. A chance discovery raises questions about her family history and the subsequent unveiling of the past has a dramatic effect on Sara’s life.

‘How many of Nina’s sayings do I have in my head, each of them just waiting to re-emerge when the time is right, so I don’t forget how to live?’

Sitting along side Sara’s personal story is another thread where parallels are drawn between refugees coming to our shores today and those that came here post WWII. Sara’s grandmother came to Australia from Russia, and her experiences closely align in some ways to the refugees Sara meets in her neighbourhood, but in other ways, there is a vast variance. I appreciated the gentle debate that unfolds throughout this story, intelligently informing, highlighting the complications and the compassions.

‘But, I realise, he is not calm. He is simply losing hope, losing his will, little by little being ground down by the process. This is the process, the deterrent to stop others from coming by boat. Stop the boats. Break those who are here. Have them tell their friends at home that they should not leave.’

Everyone has an opinion, and everyone believes in the validity of their views. I felt that Katherine Johnson conveyed so much with a distinct absence of hysteria, reinforcing the power of her presentation. Sara’s involvement with her new refugee friends leads her to a renewed focus on her research as a geneticist, particularly within the area of inherited trauma, a notion that is very personal to her given her family history.

‘The implications are profound. Not only do we inherit genetic changes that predispose us to certain diseases and characteristics, we also inherit our parents’ histories.’

Matryoshka ebbs and flows with pain and hope. As Sara builds her new life and carves out the foundations of a future for her child, some ghosts are laid to rest, some grievances are forgiven, and some mysteries are solved. Forgiveness and love underpin this story, flowing outwards from a beautifully intelligent narrative that will stay with you long after you turn the last page. Highly recommended.

‘Think about it. You actually owe it to your grandparents to enjoy your life. It was their gift to you.’


Thanks is extended to Ventura Press via Simon and Schuster Australia and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of Matryoshka for review.

About the Author:

Katherine Johnson was born in Queensland and grew up alongside the fig-tree lined Brisbane River. At university she combined her two loves ― writing and biology ― graduating with both Arts and Science degrees, with honours in marine biology. Katherine then moved to Tasmania where, after more than a decade working as a science journalist for the CSIRO and other organisations, she began writing fiction: stories of love, loss and resilience set against wild landscapes. Her first novel, Pescador’s Wake is set on the Southern Ocean, in South America and Tasmania. Her second novel, The Better Son, was published by Ventura Press in 2016 and is a Tasmanian Literary Award winner. She is now completing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Tasmania. She lives on a cliff top overlooking the sea with her husband and two children. Her latest adventure was to wild south-western Tasmania by yacht.

Published by Ventura Press
Released on 1 October 2018

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Matryoshka by Katherine Johnson

  1. Pingback: #BookBingo – Round 2 | Theresa Smith Writes

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