Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 24, 2019

Invented Lives, by Andrea Goldsmith

It’s hard to express the intense pleasure of reading Andrea Goldsmith’s new novel, Invented Lives. It’s not just that it’s an absorbing novel that held my interest from start to finish, it’s also a book filled with insights that will stay with me for a long time.

While the central character in Invented Lives is Galina Kagan, a Russian émigré to Melbourne, and the novel focusses on her feelings of loss and not belonging, there are other kinds of exile in the novel.  One of the most interesting is that of Sylvie Morrow.  This older woman, mother to Andrew Morrow who’s fallen in love with Galina, is reminiscent of Philippa Finemore in Goldsmith’s Modern Interiors (1991).  Like Philippa, Sylvie suffered a kind of exile imposed by her gender, because women of her generation were excluded from full participation in society.  She was too young to experience the liberating effects of WW2 on women’s work, but in adulthood was just the right age to be relegated to postwar domesticity.   And just as Philippa finds widowhood liberating, Sylvie in middle age experiences a different kind of widowhood that opens up new worlds for her long-stifled energies too.

Galina’s courage is the catalyst for Sylvie’s metamorphosis.  It is the 1980s, and Gorbachev’s reforms in the USSR have enabled Galina’s emigration from Leningrad in the wake of her mother’s death.  Lidiya had been the sole surviving member of her family, the others having fallen victim to Stalin’s Terror.  But as secular Jews even under perestroika Lidiya and Galina still had few prospects in anti-Semitic Russia, and they were sceptical of Soviet reforms.  So when restrictions on Jewish travel were relaxed, mother and daughter submitted requests to leave, knowing that they were signing over the right to change their minds.  When Lidiya dies, the bereft Galina grasps the opportunity anyway, and comes to Melbourne, chosen as her destination because of her chance encounter with Andrew Morrow.

Andrew was in Leningrad to study mosaics when he helped Galina to her feet after she took a tumble on the icy pavement.  You’ll need to view the slide show on my travel blog to see these stunning mosaics in the Church of Spilled Blood in what is now St Petersburg.  But about half way through the novel, Galina and Andrew have a little tiff about the power of art.  She’s just beginning to forge a career as a children’s book illustrator and he’s an art academic specialising in mosaics. In a throwaway line that he doesn’t really believe, he says that art never saves lives.  She, the child of a survivor of the WW2 Siege of Leningrad, knows better.  She knows from her mother that inspiring broadcasts of Olga Berggolt’s poetry gave hope and that she was a symbol of strength and determination to survive; she knows that Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony was written in honour of the besieged city and that its performance by starving musicians gave the city energy instead of despair.  Galina knows that Akhmatova’s ‘Requiem’ in the prison lines at the height of Stalin’s Terror told people that the world would know of these terrible times, and she knows that people risked their lives to read samizdat in post-Stalinist times because they knew it would make them stronger. 

Galina wondered what had made Andrew say something to demonstrably wrong.  Given his own frailties and the fact he was an artist himself, she expected that there had been many times when he had turned to art to pull him out of the mire.  Of course he must know about the power of art to fortify and save. (p.230)

Andrew deflects this conversation onto her thoughts about the power of love—and that reveals an interesting divergence of opinion too…

There is also an unexpected thread about letters.  It’s impossible not to think that perhaps this thread derives from Goldsmith’s own bereavement when her life partner died,  because I have not so long ago gathered cherished letters from my father into an album.  Sylvie Morrow collects letters, and as she shares her passion with Galina, she explains that letters—from an era when people set aside time for letters— written without artifice […] with no claims to posterity […] are revealing and intimate.

‘And how much more precious does a letter become—not to me, the collector, but the original recipient—when the writer of the letter has died.  Think of it: for the wife who lives on after her husband, the man whose brother has passed away, the woman who’s lost her best friend, death does not alter their letters. I think that’s profound.  You’re able to sit by yourself reading your beloved’s words, savouring them, responding to them, just as you did when they were alive.  Death, which changes almost everything, leaves letters untouched.’ (p.217)

What, I wonder, will today’s digital generation have as solace, without letters?

Another thread that I could relate to, was the way Andrew takes Galina on excursions round ‘his’ Melbourne, showing her the landmarks of his life:

… they had driven to the Dandenong Ranges for the flashy parrots, to Warburton by the river to search for platypuses, to Phillip Island for the plump koalas wedged in the forks of trees, to famous flower gardens and eucalyptus forests.  They’d seen giant earthworms and fairy penguins, and quaint places like a house clad entirely in shells (p.223.)

[The house clad in shells was a wonderland: it was known as the Fairy House and I took The Offspring to see it in Cheltenham before it was so sadly demolished in the 1990s. Click the link to see photos.]

Well, The Spouse took me on tour too, when we were courting, showing me the landmarks of his life: his family home and play spaces at the neighbours’; his primary and secondary schools; the sea scout hall and the yacht club and the rock pools.  Then the farm and the pony club and his grandfather’s farm as well.  And I felt a similar twist of envy:

—nothing to do with the grandeur of the place, it was its mere presence.  She couldn’t pass a school and say, ‘That’s the school I attended’; she couldn’t identify an apartment building and say ‘That’s where I grew up’.  She couldn’t point to the granite embankments of the Neva where she watched the ships, or the Tauride Palace she went for the children’s concerts.  Without her own landmarks, her Soviet self, still so dominant in her, became impossible to share with others, and what they saw was an amputated version of who she believed herself to be.  There were times when she felt a stranger to herself.

Leningrad landmarks, experiences and friends, explained who she was and how she had come to be this way.  Forced to live detached from all that had formed her, she had tried so many ways of melding her Russian experience of self with the Australian one she was struggling to construct. (p. 123)

But whereas I could eventually visit ‘my’ England and share at least some of my childhood landmarks with the Spouse, for Galina the exile is permanent.  Part of the deal for Jews leaving the USSR was that they could never return.  She tries to shed her Soviet self, but two years later she’s knows it’s futile.  She’s still homesick…

This is an important aspect of migration that people should try to understand.  Even when home is a place from which one has fled, even if there were aspects of it that were abhorrent, and even when the new country is a wonderful place, it can still be hard to feel grateful as people expect you to be when they have always lived in the same place.

I loved this novel.  I was so sorry to come to the end, not because some issues remain unresolved (though they are), but rather because I was so absorbed in the lives of these characters that I wanted more.

Author: Andrea Goldsmith
Title: Invented Lives
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2019, 336 pages
ISBN: 9781925713589
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh

Available direct from Scribe Publications (where it is also available as an eBook) and from Fishpond: Invented Lives


Responses

  1. I loved it too! But thank you for teasing out the rich threads and bringing in your personal reflections.

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    • Hi Anna, there is so much one could write about this book… I find myself talking about it with friends, and I am sure that book groups would love it. What a treasure this author is to our Melbourne writing community!

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  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place and commented:
    I was a fellow student and friend of Andrea Goldsmith at Monash University during the late 1960s.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s great that you bring these writers to our insular attention here in the UK, Lisa. This one sounds intriguing; it’s always interesting to read about displacement, and an outsider’s perceptions of what’s familiar to most. Agree entirely about letters. One of my oldest friends died three years ago, but I still treasure the pile of letters he sent me; he was probably the only person I corresponded with well into the 21C – everyone else was online. Maybe a little Luddite, but it was special.

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    • It’s gorgeous. It’s available in the UK, see https://scribepublications.co.uk/books-authors/books/invented-lives

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      • Thanks for the link. Its not published here until Nov. What else of hers would you recommend?

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        • Well, I loved The Memory Trap, but before that there was Reunion, (both reviewed on this blog) and then there was The Prosperous Thief which was nominated for the Miles Franklin, and I’ve also read (and reviewed) Modern Interiors. There are some other early ones that I have on my TBR but I haven’t read them yet, a treat in store.

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  4. Letters so important and sad to see their demise. My mother’s letters kept me going for years when a young woman marooned in the suburbs with an ever increasing brood of infants. I may have one or two somewhere in my detritus but sad that I did not cherish them. Their loss of letters to our culture memory is a great loss I believe. You certainly bring treasures to our attention Lisa and this will be on must read list.

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    • I hope you find them. I’d kept most of mine but they were all over the place in my cupboards, and amongst them I found letters from my grandmother, my aunt and my uncle as well. These mean a lot too, because I never saw these relations again once we left England.

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  5. This sounds excellent.

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  6. This sounds excellent. I love themes like this. I read a novel once some time ago, I can’t remember the name of it, but it was about a character whose country no longer existed and his feelings of displacement. It was very interesting.

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  7. This sounds so interesting – the mention of Soviet Russia is of course what first grabbed me, and I realise I’ve never read about the Soviet Jewish Austraian emigre experience. I must look out for ‘Invented Lives’ in the UK!

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    • Apparently it will be available in November, see the Scribe UK link in my reply to Simon above. I hope you like it:)

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I loved your thoughts o this book Lisa. I have always enjoyed Andrea’s work, This one followed on from another I had just read, by Miriam Sved, about some young Jewish mathematicians in Hungary during WWII and I found the similarities and contrasts fascinating. I had known so little of the Jewish experience in the Soviet Union. I also found the mirror held to Australian society compelling. What is left after someone is gone, is such a moving an complex issue – letters, diaries, photos. And then, exile is such a part of the human experience, not just now but always – think of Ovid, and of David Malouf’s ‘An Imaginary Life’. Andrea Goldsmith does deep, for the big themes and I love that.

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    • Yes, that’s what I love about her books, there is so much to think about because she explores big themes through an intimate lens.

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  9. I would drive my kids mad, and my wife!, by repeatedly pointing out places around Melbourne I’d been or done such & such. Part of it I think was that having moved around a lot I was desperate for connection. And I grew up in a letter writing family – I still write sometimes, though of course emails are easier (and more likely to generate a response) – and have old letters in my bedside table drawers and in boxes in my study, not that I ever re-read them.

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    • Yes, that connection is intimately related to the landmarks of our lives. Part of what I valued so much about our first trip back to Britain was that I could see for myself that what I remembered was actually there. Prior to that I wasn’t sure if my memories were other people’s memories or images from photos rather than the real thing. Even when (as you’d expect) there were changes I could still authenticate the images in my head, which was important to me. Because it took half a century for me to be able to afford to do that, I think I understand the ache that people feel when they can’t go ‘home’ for political reasons.
      I miss writing letters almost as much as I miss receiving them.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Dear Lisa and followers (particularly The Spouse – 1968: the perfect time to be young, idealistic, energetic, anti-establishment and sleep deprived).

    It’s a heady time when a new book is published, and nerve-wracking, too. There have, of course, been two stinker reviews, but, overwhelmingly, Invented Lives has been well-received. I’ve been very happy, and very relieved. I’m not good with reviews (perhaps no author is), never seek them out, but rather wait until they are brought to my attention – with one exception, and that is your reviews, Lisa. I have visited your website a number of times since the book was published on April 2nd. As the weeks turned over I worried that you’d read the novel and didn’t like it. (And yes, I saw that you’d been in NZ, that you’d had much to do, but I’m afraid this early period of a book’s entering the world is a very self-centred time!) And now here it is. Your review. I am so pleased you enjoyed Invented Lives, and grateful that you have written about it so generously and astutely and – yes – personally. Thank you.

    I’m reading my way into the next novel, the jottings are mounting up, I’ve hand-written a few scenes, and in 4 years time I hope they’ll be a new novel for your wise consideration.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Andrea, I’m so sorry to have put you through that agony! The truth is that I bought your book the week it came out, and had it put by to read ASAP but other things got in the way. (I should add, I always review every book I read, and would have done so if I’d disliked it. The only exception is books so awful that I abandon them, I don’t think it’s fair to write a review of a book I haven’t read.)
      I’m delighted to know that the next novel is under way:)
      PS Thanks for the photos you sent to The Spouse. I’ll add them to my post in due course.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. This has turned up in my post box this morning for review from Scribe! So pleased!

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  12. […] reading this review by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog and loving the sound of the book, it turned up in my postbox this […]

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