Dreams of My Russian Summers

Written by Andrei Makine Geoffrey Strachan (trans.)
Review by Helene Williams

Winner of both the Prix Goncourt and Prix Medici in 1995, Makine’s lyrical novel about homeland, memory, and belonging is beautifully absorbing reading for anyone who may have missed its English-language debut in 2008. The narrator, also named Andrei Makine, was born and raised in the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War; every summer, he and his sister visited their French-born grandmother, Charlotte, on the edge of the Russian steppes. Each evening, Charlotte tells the children stories about her life in France, on the eve of World War I. Andrei thrills to the tales, the language, the history, and at school he feels a little more French and a little less Soviet.

As an outcast, Andrei fills his life with his grandmother’s world, and his adolescent imagination dreams of romantic adventure. Makine doesn’t just tell the stories of freedom and high ideals, however: Charlotte suffered greatly from her choice to return to Russia during the Revolution, where she ends up permanently behind what we now call the Iron Curtain. The deprivations and cruelties of the Stalin era and World War II are recalled by Charlotte without anger or regret, though, and she has room in her heart, and vocabulary in her languages, for both her French and Russian roots. Andrei’s journey to understanding his true heritage adds further layers to this already-rich story, which is instructive, wrenching, and entrancing all at the same time.