Lost Souls of Leningrad: A Novel by Suzanne Parry

Lost Souls of Leningrad: A Novel
by Suzanne Parry

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.

Love and War in the Jewish Quarter: A Novel by Dora Levy Mossanen

Love and War in the Jewish Quarter: A Novel by Dora Levy Mossanen

Set in Iran in the 1940s, Love and War in the Jewish Quarter captures Jewish life and culture as it existed in tense contest and precarious harmony with and within the majority, ruling Islamic community. On the fringes of World War II, but dangerously within the political reach of the Nazi regime and Soviet pressures, Iranian Jews must balance their interactions with Muslims even more carefully than they always had. The Allies are a distant factor; they are not a guarantee of safety as news of Hitler’s internment of Jews creeps ever closer.

[For those interested in the Jewish experience of WWII in this region of the world, One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and a search for a Lost World by Michael Frank is about Rhodes and its Jewish community before and during WWII.]

It is in this tension that Jewish dentist, Dr Soleiman Yaran, finds himself. He is trapped in the conflicting intersection between his Jewish community and roots, the powerful Iranian royal family and governors of the land, his family, and his personal desires. The novel revolves around his attempt to unravel and reconcile his responsibilities and his personal happiness. Embedded in these tensions are deeper, more global undercurrents: as a medical professional schooled in Paris, Yaran also finds himself — as an agent of a Westernized modernity — at odds with ethnic, religious traditions, Jewish and Muslim alike. The war is not the only conflict highlighted in this novel; friction also exists in culture between the traditional past and the modern present. There is a shedding of superstition and tradition in favor of new technologies and practices, beliefs about the roles of men and women in their communities. Gendered expectations, visible through the performances of wife, husband, child, lover, parent, elder, and filial piety, duty to one’s community, and duty to one’s self are strong themes throughout.

Mossanen delivers this internal and historical drama through a romantic storyline, but readers will be disappointed if they expect a historical romance, for a romance it is not. This is a love story about love in the real and brutal world, where individuals are buffeted by cultural and community expectations and traditions. Its realistic setting and story are the novel’s appeal; the unpredictability of life will keep you, Reader, on your toes throughout.

The characters too, are fascinating — multi-faceted and tangible — because they are reflections of real internal conflicts. They are flawed and spurred on to their actions by subjective logics, some which make little sense, except when viewed within the larger landscape of this history and cultural context. The villains in this novel are human in their cruelties. The heroes and heroines are human, unable to manifest impossible archetypes.

A worthy read for all fans of historical fiction of the 20th century.