The Way I Found Her

“Zoya lived in Leningrad, where Anton was born. She lived there all her life, including right through the siege of the city which began in 1941 and lasted nine hundred days. During all this time, there were no trains and no trams and no light.

Food was so scarce, people ate up all the dogs and cats and rats and all the sparrows and starlings of the city. They made soup from book bindings and glue. When someone died as 900,000 people did die, bits of their bodies were often eaten in secret, in the lightless rooms. Buttocks were considered a delicacy. Zoya and her neighbors kept themselves alive for two weeks in the winter of 1942 by making a stew out of four crows. Into this stew they put morsels of a road-mender, who had died on the stairs.”

–from Rose Tremain’s The Way I Found Her

My reading is taking a direction lately toward Russia and its history from World War II on–the horrors that happened there, starvation being the least of them. This has not been intentional. First, I read Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith, which took place during that time period. Now, I have just finished The Way I Found Her, where the “her” of the title, the Russian expatriate Valentina, is a repository of cruel, inhumane stories from old Russia. From this, I have moved on to the audiobook Crime and Punishment and am considering taking a class on Dostoevsky and his literature at the New School come fall. And then Solzhenitsyn has just died and The Gulag Archipelago lingers on my reading table.

I always said I would wait to read the Russians (the great weighty novels Anna Karenina and Notes from the Underground) until I was near death. I think of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Death of Ivan Ilych and those just feel like deathbed, “the end” stories to me. I’m beginning to see the Russians and Dostoevsky in a new light, though–an existential light–and I find existentialism closely linked to horror.

My friend Daryl recommended The Way I Found Her by Rose Tremain when we traded scary book titles recently before a performance of Hamlet at Shakespeare in the Park. She said it’s kind of a mystery, but so much more than that. The Way I Found Her is on the surface a coming-of-age story told from the perspective of a twelve-going-on-thirteen boy, who spends the summer in Paris with his translator mother at a famous Medieval romance writer’s home, Valentina’s.

Though the narrator is barely a teen, this is not a young-adult book–not to say that adolescents won’t like it, just that the characters are quite sophisticated and complex, richly developed. Even the narrator’s absent father has a distinct presence in the story.

The story is divided into three parts and is excellent as a mystery–I did not guess any of the turns and found everything to flow naturally; nothing felt contrived. I didn’t get bored or impatient as the story unfolded (a problem I have with some mysteries, causing me to skip ahead). Tremain reminds me a lot of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, and I’ll definitely read more of her work after I pursue the Russians.

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