The Girl from the Hermitage by Molly Gartland – an artist discovers life in a changing world
Russia in the twentieth century was a challenging place for its inhabitants, and this historical novel is a insightful look at one women’s life as she tries to meet various challenges. Beginning with a childhood of hunger and loss in the Hermitage during the siege of Leningrad, eight year old Galina will go on to encounter other challenges throughout her life as priorities change in so many ways, and society has different expectations. This is a moving account of one woman’s life as she stands for so much with her love and and her gifts as a painter. It is a book of memories as things are remembered, special events and times celebrated, and much more. It has a lightness of touch which is very special, a drawing of personalities which is memorable and an outstanding eye for detail in creating an atmosphere of Russian life. There is a depth of research in this book which is lightly expressed and carefully rendered into a story which carries the reader along. This is a very special book and was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.
The book opens with a father, Mikhail, desperately trying to provide food for his daughter in a small flat in Leningrad as all nourishment has disappeared from the city. It is an enormous struggle, but his friend Anna has an idea which may save them as well as her daughter Vera. People are taking shelter in the Hermitage museum, as the paintings are gone elsewhere. Mikhail is asked to paint a portrait of an official’s sons, which he is initially reluctant to do, but as his daughter later discovers the painting of portraits means an entering into a special process of discovering something of the person. When Galina herself later paints a special portrait, she discovers that the surrounding circumstances stay with her just as surely as the painting. The painting that Mikhail undertakes has unforeseeable consequences, and this is one of the earliest observations of something which becomes an important theme in the book, that painting is a process of special absorption in time and space. As everything changes around her, her relationships with those she loves are threatened and changes are forced upon her, and little remains the same in one lifetime.
This is a mature and compelling novel which looks at how a desperate attempt to preserve life can lead on to so many things. It is about how the colours and paints that an artist uses can mean so much, and in skilled hands can capture a different reality. It is about loyalty and betrayal, love and sadness, hope and the tenuous perfection of experience even if it is for just one day. The colours, textures and so many details are conveyed by the writing which I so enjoyed in this book, as the enthralling depth of feeling emerges. It is a book of things, people, emotions and so much more. It is not a long book, but is entirely successful in telling the story of a special woman who represents so many. I recommend it as a historical novel which enthralls and involves the reader with great success.