Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for The Girl From The Hermitage by Molly Gartland. My thanks to Rachel at Rachel’s Random Resources for inviting me to take part in the tour and to Lightning Books for my digital review copy. Do check out the posts by my tour buddies for today, Nicole at BookmarkThat and on Instagram, Karen at karenandherbooks .
About the Book
Galina was born into a world of horrors. So why does she mourn its passing?
It is December 1941, and eight-year-old Galina and her friend Vera are caught in the siege of Leningrad, eating wallpaper soup and dead rats. Galina’s artist father Mikhail has been kept away from the front to help save the treasures of the Hermitage. Its cellars could provide a safe haven, as long as Mikhail can survive the perils of a commission from one of Stalin’s colonels.
Three decades on, Galina is a teacher at the Leningrad Art Institute. What ought to be a celebratory weekend at her forest dacha turns sour when she makes an unwelcome discovery. The painting she starts that day will hold a grim significance for the rest of her life, as the old Soviet Union makes way for the new Russia and her world changes out of all recognition.
Format: Paperback (288 pages) Publisher: Lightning Books
Publication date: 14th September 2020 Genre: Historical fiction
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The book’s opening chapters immediately immerse the reader in the horrors endured by the people of Leningrad during the siege of that city in WW2 – the desperate shortage of food, the freezing conditions, the unburied bodies lying in the streets under a blanket of snow, the life and death choices individuals were forced to make. As Galina later recalls, “For many, it was luck that determined who lived and who perished. But for her, it was the Hermitage that saved her.”
The book charts the life changes Galina’s experiences – from daughter, to mother, to grandmother – and the many events that challenge her – betrayal, the loss of friends and family. In parallel, the reader witnesses the political changes that take place – the end of World War 2, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the formation of modern day Russia with its increasing commercialization. Looking back, Galina reflects, “How is it possible that so much can change in twenty short years? […] The collapse of the Soviet Union. One by one, she lost them.”
Despite everything Galina endures, she remains loyal to her homeland. As she explains, “It’s the motherland. I suppose it is like a family. No matter what arguments and problems we encounter, we still love each other. Even though, at times, we do and say terrible, hurtful things.” Let down by others more times than she deserves, Galina often has to call upon the resilience she learned at an early age. I admired her magnanimity and ability to forgive others, and the strength of character that enables her to remake her life many times over.
I loved the way in which the act of painting is described in the book. For Galina’s father, Mikhail, not only is the portrait commission a means of ensuring his and his daughter’s survival, the act of painting it is also a mental distraction. “As he paints, he forgets about everything he cannot control. He loses himself, the Hermitage, war and hunger in the viscous paint. He creates a rhythm: palette, canvas, palette, canvas. The brushes keep time, dancing between the two.” The portrait is also a dreadful reminder of the divisions in society that see some go hungry while others have plenty.
Later in the book, Mikhail’s artistic motivation is cleverly echoed in the feelings Galina experiences as she paints a portrait of a young girl by a lake on a day that will trigger both happy and sad memories in years to come. “Her brush dances, partnered with the symphony of squawking geese. The languid ebb and flow of their movements puts her in a trance as she focuses her attention on the emerging portrait.”
In the Afterword, Molly reveals the fascinating story – and the portrait – that inspired The Girl from the Hermitage. For those without access to the book, you can read about it on Molly’s website.
The Girl From The Hermitage is an enthralling and emotional life story, a celebration of the artistic impulse, and a revealing account of a nation during a period of upheaval and change.
In three words: Dramatic, emotional, intense
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About the Author
Originally from Michigan, Molly Gartland worked in Moscow from 1994 to 2000 and has been fascinated by Russian culture ever since. She has an MA in Creative Writing from St Mary’s University, Twickenham and lives in London. The manuscript for her debut novel The Girl from the Hermitage was shortlisted for the Impress Prize and longlisted for the Mslexia Novel Competition, the Bath Novel Award and Grindstone Novel Award.
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