Monday, May 10, 2010

Ship of Widows

Ship of Widows / I. Grekova ; translated by Cathy Porter.
London: Virago, 1985, c1981.
179 p.

I remember way back in January, thinking that I'd sign up for Emily's TBR Challenge, as the idea of reading 20 of my own books before buying any more sounded great. Well, I have failed miserably. I've already bought a ton of new books this year, but I am not giving up on the idea of getting the 20 books I put on my list for the Challenge read before too much longer. I've read a couple that I haven't talked about yet, and one such book is this novel, a Russian translation republished by Virago.

This is the story of a 'ship of widows', a Moscow apartment in which a group of five widows each inhabit a room and share the common spaces. The balance of the household is disrupted first when one of the supposed widows has a child, her husband returns from nowhere and eventually dies knowing he is not the father. The presence of the troubled, spoiled boy upsets the other women and drives the story forward. Later on another of the widows moves a man into her room, sparking arguments about how much of the household expenses she should now be covering. It always seems to be men at the root of these women's problems, whether domestically, societally or politically. Either they are too much there, or not there at all. The setting is post-WWII so there is a shortage of men and life is hard.

The book's genius, in my view, is how Grekova presents the details of living communally, the constant wrangling over territory and resources. The widows' lives are enmeshed due to their living situation, but that doesn't mean they are all best friends. They make it work, and each has their own quirks and makes their own contribution. Even the primary narrator Olga allows that she herself is not so easy to live with. The ways in which they struggle to make their lives work, both within the home and in the greater society, are drawn clearly but without any feeling of whining or complaining. It is just the way it is. The interwoven stories of each of the women (all different people - an intellectual, working class, religious peasant, etc.) provide a wide view of Moscow society of the time and all the small details fill it in so that you can truly feel what life must have been like.

The book moves between Olga's first person narration, and third person sections about the others in the story. Each is quite fascinating, and the young boy Vadim, who is raised by all of them, turns out to be quite a difficult creature. It is unfortunate that Vadim becomes such a focus of the second half of the book, as he was not very likeable (others note that he is a very typical Russian disaffected young man). I would have rather spent more of my time with the widows! But, if you want a clear look at daily life in an era of Russian history that is not frequently written about -- the urban, postwar female experience -- this is a good way to start. I enjoyed reading it, even if much of the tale is sad and dreary. The human spirit triumphs even in these depressing circumstances, in the way that women can get used to anything and survive, if not flourish.

Though Grekova's writing is straightforward and matter-of-fact, I found a few quoteable bits that have stuck with me.

In the past I had always been sustained by my worries about other people, and other people's worries about me. The word 'unworried' is generally associated with the notion of happiness. But how vulnerable and forlorn a life without worries is!

Each person fights for themselves, and for justice. And in this battle for justice people are prepared to sacrifice themselves and suffer, if only in order that evil may be punished. Whose fault is it if everyone has their own interpretation of justice?

So too in our flat, everyone wants justice done, but everyone understands the word differently. Everyone is just in their own way. One of the most painful things life has taught me is that everyone is right in their own way.

Another view: Lisa at Lizok's Bookshelf reviews it with a professional eye

To read a long & insightful essay about Grekova's works, look at the introduction to Ship of Widows


  1. I'm glad to see you enjoyed this book, too!

  2. Thanks for this introduction to Grekova's work. 'Ship of Widows' sounds wonderful; I look forward to adding it to my TBR.

  3. Lisa - I really did, and your thoughts on it added to my reading experience, thanks!

    Carin - if you like Russian novels I think you will find this one well worth the time.


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