When you are reading a book and suddenly encounter an image-bearing sentence so beautiful that you physically startle-well, attention is due. All the more if that book is a first novel, which this is. Debra Dean's protagonist Marina is described in alternating sequences as a tour guide working in Leningrad's renowned Hermitage just before the Nazi siege in 1940 and as a widow in America whose mind is under siege by Alzheimer's sixty years later. Horrific circumstances to be sure, at either end of the continuum. She teeters on the brink of death by starvation in the cold shell of the Hermitage after the monumental evacuation of its priceless artifacts; decades later she endures the progressive disorientation accompanying her advancing disease (Dean's portrayal of the inner wandering of someone suffering the condition is absolutely convincing). The wonder of Dean's appropriately dream-like narrative lies in its effortless evocation of the fragile beauty and nobility which mark our greatest works, and our very nature, in the teeth of the meaninglessness and decay that strive for center-stage in our perceptions. Unbearable degradation and tragedy can be transfigured by a single act of kindness, a single empathetic word. An unforgettable work by a writer of the first rank. 231 pp.
An Eighth Day View:
Bit by bit, the ravages of age are eroding Marina's grip on the everyday. An elderly Russian woman now living in America, she cannot hold on to fresh memories--the details of her grown children's lives, the approaching wedding of her grandchild--yet her distant past is miraculously preserved in her mind's eye.
Vivid images of her youth in war-torn Leningrad arise unbidden, carrying her back to the terrible fall of 1941, when she was a tour guide at the Hermitage Museum and the German army's approach signaled the beginning of what would be a long, torturous siege on the city. As the people braved starvation, bitter cold, and a relentless German onslaught, Marina joined other staff members in removing the museum's priceless masterpieces for safekeeping, leaving the frames hanging empty on the walls to symbolize the artworks' eventual return. As the Luftwaffe's bombs pounded the proud, stricken city, Marina built a personal Hermitage in her mind--a refuge that would stay buried deep within her, until she needed it once more. . . .