At the heart of this story is Inara, her mother, father, brother Rudy and Uncle Maris. Inara's father is a grave digger in the town's cemetery. Inara's family lives in a small town in Latvia, which was part of the Soviet Union but has since become the country of Latvia. Years of territorial fighting, violence, and borders changing countries has left the Latvians in town clinging to their beliefs that only true Latvians belong there. Not the Ilmyen family across the way (Jews who play astoundingly good chess); not the German-Latvian couple Mr. and Mrs. Zetsche, who are buying up every property and land available in town.
Russian, German, and Latvian cultures all co-mingle in a town haunted by the horrors of World War 2, when they were at the mercy of so many warring countries. The years under Soviet rule also demanded the town lose its identity as Latvian, and deny the history and culture that made its people unique.
Inara's story is told by herself to her son Maris years later as she lays on her deathbed. As a reader, you become invested in the lives of Inara and her family as they struggle to stay warm and fed through years of low employment, food shortages, and a town that seems to be dying. Fairy tales, myths, legends, and family history are intertwined in letters Inara finds hidden in her grandparent's old estate home--now owned by the Zetsches. Those folk tales provide the blanket on which the history of the town is woven, and the whispers of past horrors are covered up by people who are desperately trying to hang onto their culture and forget what happened in the past.
Can Maris, with his big ears that hear the regrets of the dead, the voices of the river, and the whispers of the earth be the salvation of his town and his family?
If you are a fan of novels set in post-Soviet Union Eastern Europe; of fairy tales and folk tales; of families, love, and regret, you will certainly want to read this wonderful novel. It is at times both funny with a gentle humor, and so sad it creates a pang in your heart. I enjoyed the family dynamics, the struggle to keep cultural stories alive to pass down to the next generation, and most of all, I loved Inara. She was a fully fleshed out character that kept me turning the pages. My only struggle was remembering that Inara's story took place in the 1990's; the novel had a feel to it that kept tricking me into thinking it took place just after World War 2.
Thank you to Houghton Mifflin for a review copy of this book.
Available in hardcover and e-book.
Rating: 7/10 for a richly woven tale of a town, a family, and a country looking to heal from deep wounds with the help of their cultural identity and strength as Latvians. A very moving novel.