Ice Road

Written by Gillian Slovo
Review by Ellen Keith

Set in the Soviet Union prior to and during World War II, Ice Road makes personal the terrors of Stalin’s era. It also makes clear how lives can be changed by a single, seemingly inconsequential act. Irina Davydovna, a cleaner, takes a job on the ship Chelyuskin, which is making a scientific expedition to the Arctic Circle. Boris Aleksandrovich, a high-ranking Soviet, had offered her the job, and when the ship is trapped for months on end, in the ice of the Arctic, Boris feels responsible for Irina when she returns to Leningrad, and in turn, she becomes a friend to his daughter Natasha, a housekeeper to his friend Anton Antonovich and then a guardian to Anya, the orphan that Anton adopts. All of these lives are, in turn, affected by the harshness of the Soviet regime when purgings were commonplace, standing in line for hours on end to be told to come back the next day was accepted and not questioned, and standing out in any way was to be avoided at all costs.

Slovo perfectly captures this now-unthinkable way of life. Irina, who narrates in the first-person, is the conscience of the tale, maintaining her own thoughts while navigating through Stalin’s repressions and keeping those she loves alive. What is more chilling is to see the thought processes of others as they calculate who can be sacrificed so that they can be saved. The author also recreates the Siege of Leningrad, a grim reminder of the effects of war on civilians. Despite its subject matter or perhaps because of it, the book does not end on an irredeemable note, testifying to the enduring human spirit. I could not put this book down.