Book Chat: ‘Shadows on the Tundra’ by Dalia Grinkeviciute

Translated by Delija Valiukenas

In 1941, 14-year-old Dalia and her family are deported from their native Lithuania to a labour camp in Siberia. As the strongest member of her family she submits to twelve hours a day of manual labour. At the age of 21, she escapes the gulag and returns to Lithuania. She writes her memories on scraps of paper and buries them in the garden, fearing they might be discovered by the KGB. They are not found until 1991, four years after her death. This is the story Dalia buried. The immediacy of her writing bears witness not only to the suffering she endured but also the hope that sustained her. It is a Lithuanian tale that, like its author, beats the odds to survive.

Reading Shadows on the Tundra reminded me just why my main reading goal for 2019 was to read more translated literature. I’ve been to Vilnius, spending days exploring the city and reading about the country’s history in museums and galleries, and even after that I realise now how little I really got the history until I read this. It’s relentless. Brutal. Unflinching. Raw. A thousand similar adjectives still wouldn’t quite convey just how powerful this book is. It isn’t for the faint-hearted – Dalia’s record of her experiences of the Soviet Gulag doesn’t make for easy reading and I often felt physically uneasy while reading what she endured – but it was absolutely worth it. Every grimace and every tear.

I knew about Lithuania’s history but, as with so many things, it’s the personal accounts that get you to see past the overwhelming statistics and stark facts and understand what these sweeping events really meant to individuals. This account is beautifully written and, told as it is from Dalia’s personal experience, doesn’t get lost in trying to convey the scale of the deportations – it’s one young girl’s story of what she and her family went through, and a hugely impactful one at that.

What I suppose is remarkable is that while it’s undeniably dark, there’s hope. I wonder if that’s in part because Dalia wrote this account when she had managed to escape, or if she always did have such a conviction that she’d survive.  Either way (and I know that this sounds melodramatic) there’s something life affirming about Shadows on the Tundra. Even while the Lithuanians were subject to appalling cruelty, there are those that refuse to lose hope, those who show compassion and refuse to give up on their humanity. There’s just so much to take from these 200 pages.

One thing (among the many things) that I love about the books that Peirene Press publishes is that they’re all short enough that you can comfortably read them in one go. Even if that hadn’t been the case, I’m not sure I’d have had much alternative with Shadows on the Tundra. The writing is urgent and direct and almost impossible to wrench yourself away from. There aren’t chapter breaks and it’s often difficult to tell how much time has passed. I’m not always a fan of that type of writing but the stream of consciousness style suits this narrative – the flow and passage of the pages mirroring the flow and passage of Dalia’s days perfectly. People come and go as they pass in and out of Dalia’s life. There are deaths of people you as a reader have only known about for two pages and even those are heartbreaking, not only because they were obviously the deaths of real people but also because death has become so commonplace that each is simply told without emotion.

Read it, cry over it and then please come back here so that we can talk about it.

Overall: I know that book reviewers wheel out this phrase all the time and it can feel like a worn out old statement but this book really is important. There isn’t much more I can say. I finished it yesterday and it’s still playing on my mind. I expect that it will be for some time to come.

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Date finished: 09 March 2019

Pictured edition published: by Peirene Press in June 2018

Source: Bought – publisher subscription

Pop Sugar Challenge Prompt: A novel with no chapters/unusual chapter headings/unconventionally numbered chapters

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