I've just finished reading Otherland by Maria Tumarkin. This is an account of Maria's trip back to Kharkov in the Ukraine, a city she'd emigrated from about twenty years before as a 15- year-old schoolgirl. She is accompanied on this return journey by her daughter, 12-year-old Billie, and the book is as much about their relationship as it is about the trip itself and the politics and often tragic history of the region.
Otherland is engrossing. It jumps around in time and space, never getting bogged down in travelogue or historical accounts or political explanation, though it includes all these things.
The book is written in a clear conversational style that makes it easy and mostly enjoyable to read, although it does deal with some dark episodes such as the Siege of Leningrad where over a million people starved to death, and the murder of 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar.
The inclusion of Billie's diary entries is delightful, but I did wonder, as a mother myself, whether Billie, as she enters more fully into adolescence, might not feel exploited.
Towards the end of the book the pair visit the apartment block where Maria had grown up. Billie is disappointed in the dvor, the communal courtyard she'd heard so much about, 'where the old and young coexisted in their separate corners of the same world'. Instead of the garden she'd imagined, there was 'to tell you the truth...a rubbish tip.'
But Maria does not wish this trip to be about pitying the poor deprived Russians. She writes:
We are born into spaces and we grow up in them. We are blessed not to know any better...We play with the puddles in which grown-ups step, cursing bad roads and general disorder and decay.We fit whatever size is given to us. And the dirt is much more fun to play with than the sand. We are not deprived. We are not to be pitied. We are on top of the world.The journey (and the book) is an attempt to synthesise the life in Russia that Maria didn't live with the life she lives in Australia; the world she grew up in and that formed her and the world where Billie lives. It's hard to know about the trip - after all, although Billie is delightfully intelligent and sensitive she is also a typical Aussie adolescent and homesick most of the time for friends and comforts - but at least the book is a success.