Wednesday, November 19, 2008
REVIEW: Medea and Her Children, by Ludmila Ulitskaya
Medea and Her Children, by Ludmila Ulitskaya. Published 2002 Schocken Books. Literary fiction. Translated from the Russian.
Medea and Her Children is an engrossing multi-generational tale about a large extended Soviet-Greek family living in and around the Crimea, a region of the former Soviet Union now part of Ukraine and located near the Black Sea. The Sinoply family is made up of thirteen siblings and although novel concentrates on just a few, along with their lovers, spouses and children, Ulitskaya has created a universe inside a small community. The irony of the title is that Medea, an elderly widow living alone near the sea, is childless.
But since she lives by the sea, her home is the unofficial family center and her relatives, now scattered to all corners of the former Soviet Union, float in and out all summer long, visiting her and each other. The narrative is concerned with the ebb and flow of lusts, loves and affections through the years; the structure is somewhat loose and veers back and forth between the past and present, as we watch the cast of characters interact- coming together and coming apart. These characters include Medea herself, a dependable and dutiful widow, her vivacious sister Alexandra, Alexandra's granddaughter, the tragic Masha, Masha's lover, the athlete Butonov, and many others. We also hear Medea's love story- the story of her marriage with Jewish dentist Samuel, and we learn that everyone has secrets.
Thematically, the novel is about the influence of the past over the present, and how events and feelings swirl and mix and come back together over time. Medea and Her Children also shows the effect of the collapse of the former Soviet Union on the characters' lives- how their paths are shaped and changed by the swirl and mix of history. We see how Butonov's career in athletics has been frustrated and shaped by the Soviet system, then redefined by its breakdown. And when Masha's Jewish husband gets permission to emigrate, there are serious and unforseen consequences for the family.
Interestingly, author Ludmila Ulitskaya trained as a geneticist and the themes of inheritance and relationships are central to this beautifully-written family story. Although the story is deeply involving, Medea and Her Children is not a plot-driven page-turner but rather a nuanced, literary extended character study of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-generational family, and Ulitskaya has done a wonderful job creating fascinating characters I came to care for struggling in an unpredictable world. In the end, Ulitskaya writes about how the ties of family can overcome even the deepest of wounds. I found Medea and Her Children to be a richly satisfying read and would happily recommend it to readers of serious fiction, and in particular to followers of modern Russian literature. I have another one of Ulitskaya's books on my shelf and can't wait to get to it as well.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.