The Porcelain Doll by Kristen Loesch – An ambitious novel of women in twentieth century Russia

The Porcelain Doll by Kristen Loesch

This is a huge book in some senses, using some vividly drawn female characters to look at much of the twentieth century in Russia. At least one looks like the porcelain book of the title, and this is a recurring theme in a book that looks at the power of story and memories. From the inequalities of pre-revolutionary St Petersburg to the questions of Moscow in the later twentieth century, this book alternates narratives of Tonya, a young woman and the voice of Rosie, a woman who in 1991 feels compelled to investigate her family, rocked by tragedy and exiled to Britain in her childhood. It features brutal stories of imprisonment in camps beyond the edge of survival and the confusion of enormous political and social upheavals through the eyes of those who fought to live through them. It reveals the secrets and half truths of those who were besieged in a war torn city, as well as the disappointments of families and lovers. Nevertheless it expresses the complexity of survival at any price, and the unintentional legacies of the past. It is an ambitious book, using the perspective of women to look at so much uncertainty in a world being destroyed and rebuilt. The setting is cleverly invoked by hints of city streets contrasted by the rich vegetation attacking a house, and the crowds of uncertain people with those left alone. The characters are consistent and well drawn, if left deliberately ambiguous at times. I was very impressed by this book, and was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 

The book opens with a Prologue in the manner of the short stories that season the novel. It is brutal, and raises the subject of the pretty girl and the matching doll, the dichotomy between reality and imagination. The focus then shifts to Rosie in London, 1991. She recounts how she  goes to listen to Alexey Ivaov, a man who “is nearly a century old” who is reading from “The Last Bolshevik”, his memoir of life in Russia. She is eager to meet him, hoping that his advertised research trip will mean that she can at last return to the country she was born in, from where she was rapidly brought by her mother, the only survivors of an attack on her family. Visits to her mother, dying from the effects of alcohol, show how she is nervous of the “porcelain prisoners” or dolls that were some of the few items that they brought from Russia in their haste. She discovers her mother’s notebook, frustratingly difficult to read, apparently full of stories. Then the plight of Antonia in Petrograd in the autumn of 1915 is featured; a very young woman imprisoned in marriage to Dmitry, a wealthy man who collects beautiful things and collected her on a visit to the country. She is aimless in a life of luxury, but is observant, and spots a young man, a leader of workers, a maker of speeches. On her solo early morning walks she meets Valentin Andreyev and they sense a mutual attraction, one that must be kept secret. Tonya is a young woman who has nightmares, memories of her mother’s sadness, seeing no way forward despite Valentin’s call for a workers’ revolution. As time goes on, Tonya must face the horror of a revolution, the need to return to where there is a perceived safety. Meanwhile Rosie has returned to Russia and is beginning to discover the unsettling nature of her dead sister’s spirit seemingly everywhere, the contrast between memory and what she is beginning to find out about her mentor and half remembered people. In the disturbance of a state changing on a daily basis, she must be careful of the balance among those around her and cities she is beginning to recognise. 

This is a powerful book which deals with the power of memory, of the stories that people leave behind. It provides a fascinating insight into a nation’s history via the people who were there. I recommend it as a big book, and a memorable reading experience.