Lost Souls of Leningrad is a rare novel about the Russian civilian experience of World War II. Even rarer, its primary protagonist — and the character through whose eyes this experience is filtered — is a late-middle aged woman, a widow. (I am not a fan of romantic WWII novels that involve beautiful young women who all wear red lipstick, have perfectly coiffed hair, and fabulous clothes in the middle of wartime. Hello? Rations? I mean, COME ON.)
Parry’s novel possesses a more realistic portrayal of wartime. Its setting is Russia, a nation besieged by Nazis. There is a tightrope tension, drawn even tauter by dwindling supplies of food and medicine. Lost Souls of Leningrad does not romanticize war; events and experiences that other novels paint in sepia tone, Parry swathes in a more authentic grey. The sense of loss, a grieving for the world that was, is palpable in Lost Souls of Leningrad in a way that makes it refreshing as a novel of WWII.
The story revolves around an aging, widowed violinist and her teenaged granddaughter. But the novel is not about them alone. Lost Souls of Leningrad is a landscape of a European city at war. Parry reveals to the reader the swift and terrible death and decay of an urban place and its people when the trappings of civilization are ripped off by war. Food and the lack of it, water and the lack of it, the stench and the unavoidable abundance of it. Fear from all the dark corners, lives cast into darkness in the absence of street lights, electricity, law and order. The other characters are Russian soldiers, mothers, wives, and orphaned children. All of them are the lost souls of the title, each of them has lost something, whether a loved one or a parent, or simply their sense of security in ordered society that they once had, even if imperfect. Loss and grief, not only as a result of war, but through political upheaval, are themes that imbue the book. The novel draws a line between the time before and the time after, the time of war, and afterwards, even when war is over, there remains a division of before and after.
While the novel does not romanticize war, there are romantic threads in its storylines. There is love in this novel in various forms: nurturing and mothering love, parental love, innocent and childish love, romantic love, the kind of love that is weathered by life. While a defeating hopelessness pervades the novel (it is war, after all), there is also an uplift via its characters’ resilience. This strength manifests in many forms but most prominently through love and kindness.
As a historical fiction, it portrays a more social version of history than a military or political one. Readers should not expect dates or events, but an overall texture of life in wartime Russia. This is not a historical fiction that relies heavily on the facts of history, though the timeline of events does follow authentically in line with actual history; this is a novel about the human experience of war, lived and sensed through the skin, the eyes, the nose, the tongue.
This a beautifully written novel about surviving loss of different kinds and the love we need to do so.