Lead Review

  • Book: Snegurochka
  • Location: Kiev (Kyiv)
  • Author: Judith Heneghan

Review Author: tripfiction



Snegurochka was long-listed for “Not the Booker” 2019 and has been shortlisted for The Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards 2020 (Fiction, With A Sense Of Place).

The book is set in 1992, just after Ukraine declared independence in 1991. It is also 6 years after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, which occurred in 1986.

Rachel and her tiny son Ivan have joined her husband Lucas, who is already in Kiev reporting on a freelance basis for the BBC and working on other arts projects. Kiev is a pretty alien city, still coloured by its communist past. It is as dreary as the winter slush, with its impersonal high rise buildings built for function rather than beauty. For a Westerner it is a picture of desolation, dog faeces littering the kerb and green areas, forlorn people going about their daily business, shops offering, well, very little and a paucity of food choices. The couple’s apartment is on the 13th floor (unlucky for some). Rachel has to cope with an erratic lift, a buggy that cannot be left unattended for fear of theft and hiccuping pipes through which hot, rusty-coloured water may or may not run. The family’s washing is done in the bath. Welcome to life in post communist Kiev.

Rachel, incarcerated in her bleak surroundings, starts to manage her world of motherhood by obsessive compulsive behaviour. Contamination from Chernobyl is always at the back of her mind, even 6 years on. She cannot be sure that the food they are eating is not from anywhere near the contaminated zone. Is it motherhood that is driving her to erratic thinking, that she strongly needs to make herself and her baby feel safe? As the baby, Ivan, resolutely clamps onto her breast for a feed, she can feel her life ebbing away and the anxiety rising. There are no doctors to tend them should they fall ill. Her unease is compounded by the unforgiving nature of the city. She cannot go onto the balcony as she is plagued by images of her baby falling over the railings. She checks… counts… double checks…..

The block’s concierge monitors the comings and goings. A young boy lives above them and observes with an intrusive gaze. And a local fixer shows unnerving interest in her movements. Where can she find succour and friendship? And yet, after a while, she finds herself embracing the company of Elena, their concierge as they watch a Spanish TV series together – they may come from very different cultures, with very different languages but there is warmth growing between the two.

This is a powerful portrait of motherhood and marriage, set against the backdrop of a city that was just developing as a new player on the world stage. In terms of literary wanderlust, this is how it is done. Kiev, in all its raw, ugly state is laid out for the reader to explore, yet it does not overwhelm. Setting and story are symbiotic and balance each other very well. The pacing of the storyline is taut, claustrophobic at times, it is beautifully written and a thumping good read. It truly deserves wider exposure.

Snegurochka is the title of a Russian fairy tale – a childless couple build their own child out of snow but when the Spring comes….

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