About the Book:
Knowing what you want is hard. Accepting what is possible is harder still.
It is the mid-1980s. In Australia, stay-at-home wives jostle with want-it-all feminists, while AIDS threatens the sexual freedom of everyone. On the other side of the world, the Soviet bloc is in turmoil.
Mikhail Gorbachev has been in power for a year when twenty-four-year-old book illustrator Galina Kogan leaves Leningrad — forbidden ever to return. As a Jew, she’s inherited several generations worth of Russia’s chronic anti-Semitism. As a Soviet citizen, she is unprepared for Australia and its easy-going ways.
Once settled in Melbourne, Galina is befriended by Sylvie and Leonard Morrow, and their adult son, Andrew. The Morrow marriage of thirty years balances on secrets. Leonard is a man with conflicted desires and passions, while Sylvie chafes against the confines of domestic life. Their son, Andrew, a successful mosaicist, is a deeply shy man. He is content with his life and work — until he finds himself increasingly drawn to Galina.
While Galina grapples with the tumultuous demands that come with being an immigrant in Australia, her presence disrupts the lives of each of the Morrows. No one is left unchanged.
Invented Lives tells a story of exile: exile from country, exile at home, and exile from one’s true self.
It is also a story about love.
‘Yet she was all too aware that she, a Russian Jew, was formed by Russia – the Russia of her lifetime and the earlier Russia of her mother and grandparents. She might well be surrounded by freedom and delight, but she carried her past with her. It was as if she were inhabiting two lives simultaneously, and much of the time they were not an easy fit.’
What a novel. I should warn you up front that I’ve used numerous quotes in this review. I just feel as though there are so many profound passages within this story, and who better to demonstrate the beauty of its essence than the author herself?
‘She had thought she would assimilate more quickly if she kept herself separate from other Russian émigrés; now she wondered if she would ever fully assimilate, and, more especially, whether she could tolerate all the losses if she did. What seemed distressingly clear was that her choices – a type of self-annihilation, it now occurred to her – had made her exile total and absolute. She needed other émigrés to connect her with home.’
Invented Lives is a novel about migration, but it’s also about so much more. Novels about the USSR and life ‘behind the iron curtain’ interest me greatly – which I pointed out in my recent review of The Secrets We Kept (see my review here). We learn much about life within Soviet Russia from Galina’s story, along with so much about Russia’s tumultuous history. It was all so fascinating, and horrifying, and so desperately other to anything I have ever lived. We, who were born in Australia and have lived here all of our lives, are so very lucky. We really probably don’t have any idea just how much, and that’s just further evidence of our luck.
‘There were, she was discovering, so many possible pairings in the existence of the émigré. While gathered with this family in their home, Galina was soaking up their warmth and closeness while simultaneously being aware of what she was being forced to live without. So many impossible pairings. Even émigré and immigrant. To the Soviets she was the former, to the Australians the latter, but to herself she was both. Always this double life: an old Soviet and a new Australian.’
My grandparents were migrants, but from Belgium, not a communist European country. Growing up in a bilingual household, my life was a blend of Australian and Belgian culture. But even witnessing the different things my grandparents struggled with, it’s still so far removed from what Galina’s first experiences within Australia were like. To go from East to West is so monumental: from oppression to freedom. I can’t even begin to express how much I appreciate the authenticity of experience articulated within the pages of this novel. There were so many things that Galina had to face and grapple with that I would never have ever contemplated. The choice available, and being overwhelmed by so many options for everything, really stood out for me. The longing for Russian experiences but knowing that Russia itself was a place no longer for you.
‘And that was the crucial difference. She didn’t have a choice. When she received her exit visa to leave the Soviet Union, she forfeited any right of return. Ever. But there was something else. Imprinted in the semantics of exile was a desire to return, and the assumption that when things had improved, you’d be permitted to return.
Perhaps you stopped being an exile when you no longer wanted to return home because you were home.’
Alongside Galina’s story is that of Andrew and his parents, Leonard and Sylvie. I found Leonard to be a selfish character, but fairly typical of his generation. It was Sylvie who I really championed for and appreciated. Through Galina’s observations of this family, we were privy to a glance back through time, a look at what Australia was like in the mid to late 1980s. It was nostalgic and a little bit cringe worthy in the way that looking back can be, but also kind of quaint. I’m finding that I’m getting a lot of enjoyment of late out of reading books set in the 1980s. Far enough removed to no longer be embarrassing but not that long ago that I can’t remember. Anyway, Leonard and Sylvie provided plenty of fodder to turn over and ponder on. I really did enjoy watching Sylvie’s metamorphosis unfolding in tandem with Leonard’s destabilisation.
‘Given enough time, she can deal with disgust and betrayal, but more difficult is her sense of having been short-changed – by Leonard, certainly, but more so by their marriage. Their long marriage has allowed him freedoms denied to her; their long marriage has been far more generous to him than it has been to her.’
I also immensely enjoyed Sylvie’s letter project. There used to be a time when fat envelopes graced my letterbox frequently, but now they’re few and far between – for everyone, I would think. I still have letters that were written to me by my brother from before he died, when we were in our twenties. This passage; it pierced me.
‘And how much more precious does a letter become – not to me, the collector, but the original recipient – when the writer of the letter has died. Think of it: for the wife who lives on after her husband, the man whose brother has passed away, the woman who’s lost her best friend, death does not alter their letters. I think that’s profound.
Death, which changes almost everything, leaves letters untouched.’
There is a focus on art within this novel that touched me deeply. Each of the main characters were artists: Galina was an illustrator, Andrew a mosaic artist, Leonard had been a poet in his younger days, and Sylvie was a person who embraced many types of creativity. Art was a vivid presence to each of them by differing degrees. I have always been an advocate for the importance of the arts, so this aspect of the novel reached right into me. I just have to share this passage and it’s a fitting way to bring this review to a close too. You will hopefully see, through these words, just how splendid this novel is.
‘Every Russian knows that art saves lives; poetry, music, novels, paintings, all these have saved lives. A million people died in the siege of Leningrad, but the number would have been greater if not for poetry. Throughout those nine hundred desperate days, so her mother had told her, Olga Berggolt’s radio broadcasts encouraged with inspiring words and stories, but most of all it was her poetry that sustained the people.
And another story from the siege: a young woman, an artist, starving like everyone else, who made herself paint through a long freezing night, knowing that if she didn’t she would succumb to the overwhelming desire to curl up on the floor and let death take her.
This meticulous ability to mute pain – that’s what art can do, and Andrew was denying it. Andrew with his comfortable, fear-free life didn’t know what he was talking about.
Then there was Shostakovich’s life-saving Seventh Symphony first heard in Leningrad during the seige. Andrew probably knew nothing of the great Dimitri Dmitriyevich. The Germans tried to stop the performance, they wanted to silence so powerful a weapon. But they failed and the performance went ahead; recorded and played over the wireless, it energised hundreds of thousands of Leningraders. The Nazis knew what Andrew was now denying: art saves life, art gives life. And the reams of literature circulated in samizdat in the post-Stalinist years – people risked their life for this art because they knew it would make them stronger.’
And at the end of this chapter, about Andrew clumsily denying that art saves lives and Galina staunchly refuting this, Andrew himself disproves his own words:
‘He finished just before dawn. He had created a stormy seascape at sunset with a lighthouse. It was unlike anything he had ever done before. He made himself fresh coffee and went up to the roof. It was a vibrant dawn; the sky was lit with the colours of his painting. He watched the sun rise. He had survived the night.’
I love this so much. Enough said. Invented Lives. Just read it and weep at the beauty of it.
Thanks is extended to Scribe for providing me with a copy of Invented Lives for review.
About the Author:
Andrea Goldsmith originally trained as a speech pathologist and was a pioneer in the development of communication aids for people unable to speak. Her first novel, Gracious Living, was published in 1989. This was followed by Modern Interiors, Facing the Music, Under the Knife, and The Prosperous Thief, which was shortlisted for the 2003 Miles Franklin Literary Award. Reunion was published in 2009, and The Memory Trap was awarded the 2015 Melbourne Prize. Her literary essays have appeared in Meanjin, Australian Book Review, Best Australian Essays, and numerous anthologies. She has mentored many emerging writers.
Published by Scribe
Released April 2019