Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 190 pages; 2018. Translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis
Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk is a powerful novella that explores motherhood, the freedom to pursue your calling and life under Soviet rule.
I read it on a long train journey and finished it feeling as if my heart would break, for the story within its 190 pages is so unbearably sad. Not only does it show how an oppressive political regime thwarts an individual’s ability to fulfil their potential and stifles their intellectual freedom, it also shows the long-lasting repercussions on mothers and daughters when the bond between them is damaged.
Life in Latvia
Set over a 25-year period, the story is told in the first person in alternate unnamed chapters by the nameless mother, born in 1944, and her nameless daughter, born in 1969. (There is also a nameless grandmother, who plays a key role, but we never hear her side of the tale.)
The setting is Latvia, which is under Soviet rule.
From the very beginning the daughter has an unusual relationship with her mother, a young doctor who disappears for five days after giving birth. When she returns she refuses to breastfeed her child — a metaphor for sustenance and deprivation that keeps recurring throughout the story — because she feels she’s been poisoned by the State and doesn’t want to pass the poison on.
Ironically, the mother, who lacks maternal tendencies and has abdicated her parental responsibilities, letting her own mother raise her child, works in a maternity ward, where she delivers newborns. Later, through her ground-breaking but secretive scientific endeavours, she impregnates an infertile woman using what we now know to be IVF techniques and delivers her a healthy and much wanted baby.
But despite her steely will and gritty determination to succeed as a doctor, the mother’s intellectual pursuits are constantly thwarted by the State which dictates where she can study and what she can practise. Then, when she commits a hideous crime, she is exiled to the countryside and it is here that she sinks into a deep and unshakeable depression that overshadows her fragile relationship with her daughter, the daughter who realises very early on that “the role of mother was to become mine”.
Yearning for freedom
Written in lovely, pared back language, translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis, Soviet Milk is very much a story about isolation and yearning for freedom, but it’s also filled with delicate moments, finding joy in simple endeavours, noting the passing of seasons and the beauty of nature, how these small things can help create a desire for life.
It works on an emotional level because it builds up, scene by scene, two sides of the same coin: a daughter, constantly seeking the good and optimistic in life; and a mother, forever caught up in a dark web of unhappiness, lost opportunities and unrealised dreams. In the life they build together it is hard not to see that while they are both trapped in a “cage” imposed by the State, they are living in emotional cages they have imposed on themselves, unable to move forward or to see a way out.
This quietly devastating book will be published in the UK next month. It has already been a bestseller in Latvia, where it was first published in 2015. (I obtained my copy early because I have an annual Peirene subscription and subscribers receive their books up to eight weeks before they are available in bookshops.)