October 18, 2013

"The Family", a novel by Nina Fedorova

The Family by 
Nina Fedorova

There has been an upsurge in novelists taking on the last two World Wars and the Great Depression in-between and, with the anniversary of World War I coming up next year, we can expect an inundation from the trenches and beyond. No doubt many of these works will be meticulously researched and will make for excellent and moving reading.

But - and I hate to have to say it - all the research and accomplished writing in the world can never compare with books written by somebody who was really there and actually experienced it. I have read many good novels about World War I, but still All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque remains for me the quintessential book on life in the trenches.

The stoicism of people who served in that War is not something many modern authors can truly appreciate. People didn’t gab about their experiences or even think about World War I as we do today. Sure, it had a lasting effect and probably damaged most of them, if not physically then psychologically, but they were never a generation for over-analysing themselves as is the case today. They did their duty as they saw it and moved on as best they could.

All of this is a long-winded approach to a book I have recently read called The Family, by Nina Fedorova, published in 1941, and the winner of the Atlantic Prize. Long out of print, copies can be found via www.bookfinder.com and similar search sites. Fedorova lived through the era she writes about and although it is a novel it must have links to her own family’s experiences.

The family are a group of people, not all related by blood but forced together by powerful events – the separations and disasters inherent in revolution and war – to live together in a boarding house in Tientsin (now Tianjin) China, in the mid 1930s. The five core members are a White Russian grandmother, her daughter and three children, two of whom are orphaned cousins. They are forced to make ends meet by renting out rooms to others. And it is the comings and goings of these individuals and how they impact on the family that is the story. And what wonderful characters they are. An eccentric fortune-teller from Bessarabia (now Moldavia and part of Ukraine), a demanding drunk Englishwoman with a heart of gold, some sinister Japanese businessmen, a science professor on the verge of dementia, his long-suffering wife, a mysterious Chinese man who is some kind of spy, an elderly titled aristocrat searching for her lost young lover (toy-boy in modern parlance), an American soldier living in sin with a Russian woman, not to mention a social climber in denial about her real circumstances, three nuns, an inscrutable manservant, and a dog simply called Dog.

The family take all these people into their hearts. Some of them are very difficult to deal with but they are never rejected. In spite of the deaths and uncertainties all around them, they find a way of sustaining each other with love and laughter.

The book may seem dated on some levels as it relates to descriptions of Asian people but its true heart still shines through. If an author could write a story like this in the midst of the greatest tragedies and upheavals of the 20th Century and still impart such wisdom, joy and hope for humanity, then it has much to tell us about the positives to be found in adversity.

This comment from the Chicago Daily News written in those dark days of 1941, sums it up beautifully:

For the sheer thrill of discovery read this book. There is something about the story that will give courage to readers who have forgotten the meaning of the word.”

4 1/2 stars

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