Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

38190974-1Fiction – Kindle edition. Translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis. Peirene Press, 2018. Originally published 2015. 196 pgs. Purchased.

In Ikstena’s novella, the title refers to the emotional and physically nurturing (not) offered by the oppressive, political regime of the Soviet Union in present-day Latvia. A nameless mother and her nameless daughter serve as the narrators and central focus of the novella with Ikstena following them from 1969 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

In Latvian society prior to the Soviet Union, the nameless mother’s desire to become a doctor would have been fostered by her mother and father, her community, and her government. She would have been encouraged to follow her dreams and praised for her advancements in the science of IVF and hormonal therapy. Under Soviet rule, however, the mother’s career is restricted by the State as the nameless bureaucracy dictates where and how she can practice medicine.

The constant cycle of restriction followed by retaliation for protecting another woman comes to affect her relationship with her daughter. Depressed by the State’s interference in her life (and convinced they have poisoned her), the mother is unwilling to extend the most basic of maternal comforts – the milk from her breast – to her daughter. Instead, the daughter is left in the care of her grandmother to be raised in the State-controlled school system on “Soviet milk”.

“..my mother continued to raise me as an honourable and faithful young Soviet citizen. Yet within me blossomed a hatred for the duplicity and hypocrisy of this existence. We carried flags in the May and November parades in honour of the Red Army, the Revolution and Communism, while at home we crossed ourselves and waited for the English army to come and free Latvia from the Russian boot.”

I read this novella over the course of two flights last week yet would have eagerly devoured it in a single sitting if the flight up to Vancouver had been slightly longer. The novella builds up beautifully: the fracturing of the mother and daughter’s relationship coincides with the fracturing of the Soviet Union over the 20 years covered in this novella.

When a breakthrough seems to be at hand for the daughter and her mother, the Latvian people start to feel a trace of hope as other Soviet satellite states begin to rise up. When the dreams of political and economic freedom are brutally crushed, the young daughter is reminded by the State of what can happen to her future and how she should view her mother’s role in that. This yin-and-yang style of narration helped Ikstena strike the perfect balance between political commentary and a deeply personal portrayal of the relationship between mothers and daughters.

“It seemed to me that since I was born I’d been trying to get my mother to connect to life. As a helpless infant, as a child of limited understanding, as a fearful teenager, as a young woman. And she always seemed to be striving to turn out her life’s light. So we struggled – always ending in stalemate. Although one day the light would be extinguished for ever.”

The only quibble I have is that it took me far more time than it should have for a novella to identify the mother and daughter as distinct narrators. The book opens with each woman recounting the event of her birth, but neither of them use names and their distinct personalities don’t shine through until the daughter becomes older. Once the voices became more distinct (and the mother and daughter were separated by geography), the narration flowed far more easily and I was pulled through the emotional ringer by the story.

Ikstena’s novella won the Annual Latvian Literature Award (LALIGABA) in 2015.

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