I loved this book! It was an emotional read, at times heartbreaking. I read this one slowly to savour it but also because I had to take breaks to process what I had read and the emotions I was feeling. It is a book I believe will stay with me forever. I learnt a lot about the history of Russia, not really having dabbled in that area before and Maria Tumarkin has written Otherland so well that it doesn’t feel like a history lesson. Her words are captivating, making you want to read more and also giving you a sense of being in these times and places yourself.
I finished this book a while ago and have finally come to the point of writing the review. Let me say there is much to discuss so this review will be quite lengthy. I hope you have a cup of tea or coffee at the ready and that you will sit back, read and enjoy.
Otherland is many things, a memoir, a travelogue, a history lesson and a personal journey. Most of all it is about relationships between mothers and daughters and how time and circumstances affect friendships, making them stronger and in some cases making them weaker. Maria currently lives in Melbourne after leaving her home in Kharkar as a 15-year-old with her Jewish family in 1989. Otherland is the six-week journey Maria and her daughter Billie, an Australian born 12-year-old, take to Maria’s homeland. Maria wants to revisit her old life and show Billie where her mother lived, take her to sites of historical importance, as well as personal importance, and introduce her to family and friends from a day gone by. Along the way there are trials, much emotion and some confronting situations. Maria’s childhood friend Sasha, for example, doesn’t want to meet up. Perhaps she is scared of what they have both become, Maria having left the country on the day of Sasha’s sixteenth birthday and Sasha staying through the hardship. Turning sixteen is big enough in itself but to have your best friend up and leave on this day must have been quite emotional. At times I felt maybe a sense of guilt from Maria at having been the one who left and was leading a better life in better circumstances.
Billie takes a little time to adapt to this foreign country. After being at the Moscow Metro she wants to go home, feeling out of place, not being able to speak Russian. As you can imagine this would be quite an ordeal for a young girl but having come this far Maria and Billie continue on, building their bond stronger along the way. Maria tries to see things through Billie’s eyes, after all Billie is seeing things for the first time and Maria has been here before. It is a new experience for both though as some observations made by Billie bring new meaning to Maria’s experiences.
Maria and Billie take an overnight train ride to visit Katya, now 15 years old. When Katya was 11 years old she travelled to Australia on an exchange program, staying with a family Maria knew. It was hard for Katya to settle in and as Maria spoke Russian she decided to talk with Katya, find out what she was feeling and in the end Katya moved in with Maria and Billie who at the time lived with Maria’s parents. A great friendship developed and when Maria and Billie travelled to Russia it was only natural they would want to visit with Katya. After the visit Billie writes in her diary:
When we had to board the train I tried to make a joke and we all laughed, but when the train started with a jerk, it jerked our hearts and that was it – the train moved. My heart tore in half.”
Throughout Otherland there are excerpts from Billie’s diary and you can tell that if she wanted to she could become a wonderful writer, just like her mother. Sometimes it’s hard to believe a 12-year-old wrote some of the passages, they are just so raw and touching. Maria has her own expectations on how this trip will affect Billie, how Billie will react to certain experiences and to have snippets of Billie’s diary throughout really adds another dimension to the story.
Maria and Billie travel to St Petersburg, Maria’s favourite place, and catch up with Marina, an old childhood friend. On Billie’s birthday they go to see Carmen at the Mariinski Theatre, this being a present from Marina and her family. During the visit with Marina the topic of people being left behind in Russia, not being able to leave and go to other countries, not having a choice and having to stay and suffer through poverty is brought to the fore, awakening feelings that have not had a voice for a long time.
Another outing they make is to see Leningradka, a puppet show about the blockade of St Petersburg (Leningrad at the time) and it is during this Billie learns much and also is deeply affected. Maria sees how affected Billie is by the history and they embrace in a hug:
“This is the best, the tightest, the most gut-wrenching hug of our trip.”
Maria and Billie travel to Ukraine from Russia by train where they are ordered off the train because they don’t have the relevant transit visas. They go about getting their visas and after much running around eventually obtain them. The train they are due to board next doesn’t leave until the middle of the night and so they set about getting some dinner not far from the Gomel train station and afterwards hire a rest room for a few hours to get some sleep. It is very cold, there is no heating and Maria and Billie have to sleep in everything they’ve got. I believe this experience is quite character building and relationship strengthening, as is the whole journey really. The way this scene is described is quite entertaining, giving you a sense of the bond these two must have to be able to laugh in such a situation.
Ira is Maria’s mother’s friend and much family history is learnt through her, it’s not all doom and gloom, quite a lot of laughs about what the younger girls used to get up to. There is a visit to a ravine on the outskirts of Kiev Maria and Billie make with Ira, chapter entitled Babi Yar, and this is by far the most emotional chapter of all for me. I had to take breaks reading it. I was astounded at what I learnt of how the Jews were treated in World War II and this site was “first and foremost the site of the largest single massacre during the Holocaust”. Around 33,000 men, women and children were murdered over two days in September 1941. These people were asked to assemble, bring their families and belongings and they believed they were hopefully getting help to leave the area. No. That didn’t happen. These men, women and children were shot and as an observer described it was like the shooters were taking practice, the shots were so steady and rhythmical. Oh, to think of it now brings a tear to my eye. I would like to read more books about the Holocaust but I imagine I will have to read them slowly, taking time out often because I find it just too emotional. But, these people lived and died through it so the least I can do is learn more about their horrific murders and give voice to a time in history that should never be put under the rug and forgotten about.
As a side bit, another interesting fact, Soviet passports listed people’s ethnicity on them, if you were a Jew you were in for a hard time in certain parts and I cannot believe they only abandoned this in the 1990s!
Now, back to Babi Yar. This is where Maria’s expectations on Billie’s experiences shows its head and it also illustrates how different people have different reactions, doesn’t mean one is right and one is wrong, just means we all have our own interpretations and feelings.
A conversation takes place beginning with Billie saying, “It is so beautiful here.” Maria cannot believe she has heard her daughter correctly, she responds, “How can you say this? What’s wrong with you? This is a terrible, ugly place. How on earth can you call it beautiful?” To which Billie replies, “Saying that it is beautiful is a good thing, Mum. What would you like to see here instead? Death?” Emotions are let loose and Maria, in the hope that Ira will feel the same as she does, tells Ira what Billie has said and Ira says, “Billie is right, it is beautiful here. What is it you want?” Maria tries to gather her thoughts and explains how she felt:
“I wanted Babi Yar to be frozen in the moment of catastrophe…but why? What was the alternative? In the face of loss, the idea of life going on may seem like an ultimate insult or a self-serving fiction, but this is all we have in the end…Billie was right. Babi Yar is beautiful ‘and’ all those other things.”
Wow. Just such a brilliant chapter where my emotions were well and truly awakened.
Whilst reading this chapter I made a status update on Goodreads I would like to include here:
“Very emotional. I feel lucky to have been born in my country. What I am reading has affected me deeply, it is heavy and horrible, but at the same time eye-opening, giving voice to those who suffered and inducing a sense of respect and appreciation.”
I think I could talk about this chapter all day but we shall move on.
Maria, Billie and Natasha, a friend of Maria’s, go back to where Maria used to live. As they point out which apartment was Maria’s family’s they see a woman in a bra standing on the balcony hanging out washing. The idea was to possibly see if they could actually go into the apartment but after seeing this woman they think perhaps that wouldn’t be the best idea. Whilst standing looking at the building Maria sees her old neighbour Rimma Evlampevna, a lady who lived in the apartment above hers. They get chatting, picking up where they left off as if seeing each other after all of this time is a normal occurance, and actually have a meal together but they also get a chance to visit Maria’s old apartment, although choose only to stay for 5 minutes. This is such a great experience to share with Billie, show her where her mother lived, and where the much talked about dvor is. A dvor is like a communal garden, a place Maria enjoyed as a younger child mixing with her friends and family, a place she looks upon fondly. However, Billie doesn’t quite see it the same way as her mother; she is especially shocked at the smell and wonders why her mother talks of this dvor with such affection and happiness. Maria explains:
“I had no idea how Billie would see it – that, first and foremost, she would be taken aback by the smell.”
There is still much to discuss about Otherland and the brilliant job Maria has done in producing such a phenomenal read but one must end somewhere. I do not by any means feel like this review has done justice to the book, I have barely touched on many things and what I have expressed emotion-wise is only the tip of the iceberg. I do encourage you all to read this book and feel your own emotions, take this journey with Maria and Billie in your own way and be left to your own thoughts.
And with that I will finish off with a very significant sentence Maria writes towards the end:
“I recognise now that the real reason we went away together on our trip was so that we could come back and start learning how to live apart.”
Otherland is, first and foremost, a journey mother and daughter take together. Thank you, Maria and Billie, for allowing outsiders to share the journey with you.
I must say a big thank you to Random House for providing me with a copy of Otherland, I won it in a competition and I hate to say that if I didn’t I might not have picked it up or even been aware of it. Thank you so much for giving me a 5-star book that will stay with me forever.
To read the blurb for Otherland click here