She is packing Belgian Delft porcelain, each painted with a different scene, when she notices a spot of red in the pattern, painted in the doorway of a house, and wonders if that has a religious connotation. In the next Delft teacup, she sees a small dot of red in a koi pond and wonders why she’s never noticed a touch of red in any other Delft teacups. By the third teacup she packs, she’s marveling at this new reality—then she realizes she’s been packing china with a nosebleed, without sleep and without a break, for days, and of course she’s hallucinating those droplets of blood into the patterns because she lives in an altered state. She is a museum docent in The Hermitage, packing artworks for removal to a safe place, assuming Leningrad will endure beyond the World War. She later describes these red droplets and her confusion to her boyfriend, shaking her head over her confusion. Then the war begins in earnest and confusion is an ongoing state. A sane woman becomes prone to visions occasionally, and most of these visions feed her soul.
I’m a nonfiction writer; I love reading fiction. This “love” is a small word—I am enthralled, transported, barely able to focus on life in the everyday world, while I am reading an engaging novel. My continuing quest is to discover what makes good fiction so satisfying, and to discover ways my nonfiction might approach that level of readerly satisfaction. I don’t think it comes close, most of the time, and I should say, “at least not yet.” Some nonfiction reading brings about the same trancelike absorption.
Debra Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad blends a number of devices I love: a past narrative that tangles into a present narrative, a tour guide persona (I’m a sucker for tour guides and educators), children’s blank-faced confusion over who their parents really are. I’m a bit nervous about magical realism to any degree: I am a nonfiction writer and I stick to the truth doggedly. But magical realism makes complete sense within the context of altered physical states such as starvation, post-traumatic stress disorder, and ultimately Alzheimer’s.
What I love? Disorientation, rendered plausibly again and again. Subtlety within this frame—the narrator is losing track of distinctions between present time and an exotic past as a pre-WWII tour guide in The Hermitage. Is she “lost” momentarily because she is starving? Because she is shell-shocked? While she is lost and shell-shocked, all she sees is beauty, and in some way she is able to conjure beauty for others, entirely from memory. What I love also is elegance in story line.
What might I learn from this gorgeous novel? Paintings in the museum reflect personal realities for the narrator, and the stories within the paintings become inextricable from the narrator’s life. The absence of transitions between paragraphs about the past and paragraphs about the present—this is a technique absolutely perfected in this book. The narration itself reflects the disorientation of the main character, and how her past and present layer over one another. When I might “use” this in my nonfiction, I don’t know, but it provides a lovely way of knocking the reader off-guard. Dean also creates a fog of questioning: what is real? Of the available realities, what is the MORE real? What happens when the “real story” is implausible to others? Sometimes the real story, in nonfiction, is so nearly unbelievable.
In review of The Madonnas of Leningrad, Debra Dean’s work manages to be both rich in its lavish descriptions of art and restrained in its drama. She avoids resolution of questions about the main character’s life: was that real? How much was real? We all experience the same questioning of our own memory and of others, and yet in Dean’s book, it is this very “palace of memory,” no matter how faulty, that powers a young museum docent through Leningrad’s three year siege, and a pregnancy that seems miraculous in the face of starvation. The descriptions are tangible, realistic and stable through the first half of the book, with few foreshadowings of an “unreliable narrator.” By the time the unreliability is notable, I’m already absorbed into compassion for Marina, for her confused daughter, for her grieving husband.