Elena Chizhova: Время женщин (The Time of Women)
This novel is narrated by various characters, all women. The main character is Suzanna Bespalova who, for most of the book, is under seven years old. As she tells us early on, she will not talk till she is seven. No-one seems to know why. Her mother is Antonina, who works in a factory in Soviet-era Leningrad. She had met a man who had taken her out, taken her back to his flat, had sex with her and then disappeared, leaving her pregnant with Suzanna. She moves into a flat with three elderly women, getting her own nine and a half meters room, a big improvement on sharing a room with a lot of other single women. Antonina is initially scared but soon finds out that the three old ladies are very happy to look after Suzanna. She pretends to her employers, who are very strict about such things, given the housing shortage, that her mother has moved from the country to help her out, while it is the old ladies who actually look after Suzanna.
Much of the book is about the relationship between the old ladies – they are called the grannies by both Antonina and Suzanna – and Antonina and Suzanna. Two of them had seemingly had children and even grandchildren but they have either died or just lost touch, so they are very happy to have a child to care for in their old age. The three were both born and brought up in the Tsarist age and, while they do accept some of the changes brought about by the Soviets, they do have what would be considered old-fashioned and, in some cases, downright counter-revolutionary views. They also reminisce a lot about the Tsarist period. Indeed, one of the charms of this book involves their reminiscences. One example of their views is that they decide to baptise Suzanna, without telling Antonina, and have her christened Sofia. They will use the diminutive Sofyushka for her when Antonina is not around. Another feature is that their Tsarist education means that they speak French so they teach Sophia French (something, we later learn helps her in later life). Despite the fact that Suzanna cannot or will not speak till she is seven, she clearly is a clever girl and learns to read both Russian and French. For example, the women deliberately make mistakes in their spoken French and Suzanna will frown at them. She can also write, as she shows when she writes the word Bolshiviks (sic) on a drawing, to the horror of the grannies. The grannies, however, are doting substitute parents. They take her out and even take her to a performance at the Marinsky.
The story is narrated by the various women, including Suzanna, both from her point of view in later life as well as her pre-seven year old, non-speaking self. This gives us both Suzanna’s and Antonina’s perspective as well as the grannies’ perspective so we learn about Suzana’s life and learning as well as Antonina’s difficulties and the grannies’ earlier life. The women in the factory act as both a support group as well as a moral guidance. There is a council of women who feel that women with children should be married and are critical of men who get women pregnant and then do not carry out their responsibilities. When one man dates Antonina and then does not propose to her the women go into action and try not only to persuade him directly but by using pressure at work. Zoya Ivanovna, Antonina’s boss, is particularly forceful in this respect and is always having a go at Antonina. Antonina herself is something of a lost soul, missing (and still imagining) the father of her child while unsure of Nikolai, the man who has been dating her. She is also continually worried that the authorities will take Suzanna off to a home or make her go to school, where her non-talking will get her seriously teased. She is determined, however, to do the best by her child and even manages to get hold of a television, which she thinks will help Suzanna learn to speak. However, she gets ill – a serious tumour – for which she has to have an operation and which the women at the factory think is actually a pregnancy as a result of her relationship with Nikolai.
We do learn that Suzanna will speak and will go on to become a successful artist and that she will be grateful to the grannies having brought her up (and taught her French). However, the book is about the relationship between the mute girl, her mother and the three grannies and Chizova and, as such, Chizhova tells an excellent story. We get something of a portrait of Leningrad during the Soviet era as well as a story of how a group of women can band together and help a fellow woman in distress and bring up a young child, despite the Soviet system and despite those that criticise.
First published 2009 by Astrelʹ
First English publication by Glagoslav in 2012