The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

March 3, 2006
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The Madonnas of Leningrad
Debra Dean

William Morrow
Hardcover/228 pages
ISBN: 0-06-082530-8
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". . .this first novel. . . tenderly explores all manner of heroics required for everyday survival."

The parallel horrors of life during wartime and the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease echo through the pages of this haunting, evocative novel. The Madonnas of Leningrad follows the travails of a young docent named Marina at the Hermitage Museum during the Seige of Leningrad in 1941 and her eventual slide into senility sixty years later.

As the Germans close in on Leningrad, conditions for the city’s residents go from optimistic to horrific. Marina’s job shifts from guiding tours through the former Winter Palace to packing and crating the priceless collections to night fire spotter, stationed on the roof of the museum complex with a pair of binoculars and a walkie-talkie. Eventually she learns to cope with the suffering and devastation around her by recreating the museum collections in her memory, a luminous foreshadowing of the scrambled sense of time and place she will eventually succumb to.

Particularly beautiful are the frequent references to the treasures of the museum collection. Marina’s imaginary recreations of the masterpieces, especially the many Madonna paintings, become transformed during the long, dark winter months of deprivation until they take on a magical quality:

“Before they leave, Anya presses her lips to the Christ Child’s toes and mumbles something to him. At the door, Marina glances back over her shoulder and sees the Christ Child still watching them guardedly. And then he spits the nipple from his mouth and burps. We are both insane, she thinks.”

With language finely tuned to the poetry of loss, this first novel by Debra Dean tenderly explores all manner of heroics required for everyday survival and not just in wartime. By seamlessly blending the extreme conditions of the Russian citizenry forced into makeshift bomb shelters in the cellars of the museum complex during the most brutal of winters with the poignancy of Marina’s decline into dementia so many years later, Dean has created a compelling atmosphere of love and beauty among the ruined lives she has so carefully drawn.
Reviewer: Candelora Versace


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