A new Peirene is always a treat but I was particularly keen to read Soviet Milk written by a Latvian author born in 1969, twenty years before the fall of the Berlin Wall which resulted in her country’s liberation. I visited the Baltic states several years ago and was struck by each of the three countries’ proud independence, undercut by a jitteriness in the face of Putin’s predatory gaze. Nora Ikstena’s novella opens in the year of her birth, telling the story of a mother and daughter whose relationship echoes their country’s tumultuous history.
When the unnamed twenty-five-year-old mother gives birth to her daughter, no one knows who the father might be. She’s an intense, naïve young woman, a doctor who had wanted to be a scientist but found herself working on a maternity ward. In 1944, her own mother had hidden her in a suitcase from the soldiers who pursued her father, pillaging their house. The mother grows up in Riga, rejecting her stepfather when she finds her own father alive. After she gives birth, she disappears for five days until her milk dries up. The daughter is raised by her grandparents, her mother caught up in her work, spending little time with her daughter and subject to crushing periods of depression. When she admits that she has helped a woman become pregnant by artificial insemination, the mother is exiled to a small country clinic taking her daughter with her. Over the years, mother and daughter grow closer, a quiet love blossoming between them, but the daughter moves away, returning to her grandparents in Riga, visiting her mother increasingly rarely as she scents freedom on the air.
Ikstena alternates the mother and daughter’s first-person narratives so that we see both sides of this relationship, at first cold and distant then becoming closer until the daughter becomes the centre of her mother’s shrinking life. Both characters are unnamed making it a little confusing at first but once you’re attuned to their different voices, the novella flows beautifully. It’s easy to read this as a parable: the mother chained to a state that dictates and punishes, unable to countenance the possibility of freedom while her daughter reaches out for it eagerly. There are several extended metaphors to this effect which if clumsily handled could have made the novel a somewhat creaky read but Ikstena and her translator are much more skilful than that, and the writing is often striking: In Leningrad we shuffled along on the thin ice of freethinking chills with its implication of risks taken, disasters courted. Ikstena paints a picture of a country freed from the tyranny of Nazi occupation only to find itself under Stalin’s boot. Shortages, brutality, careful circumspection and fear are its backdrop which never swamps the relationship between the two women. Soviet Milk is both polished and moving; a love story between a reluctant mother torn by anguish at the state of her country and a daughter who looks to the future with hope. It ends in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and Latvia’s longed-for freedom on the horizon.