The Girl from the Hermitage
Gartland’s novel, an ambitious family saga spanning two generations, is set in Leningrad, later St. Petersburg, from 1941 to the first glimmers of transformation in the 1990s and then into the glitz of the 21st century.
Starting in 1941, young Galina’s father, Mikhail, fights for his child in desperate conditions. Then a chance opportunity leads to his painting a portrait of the sons of one of Stalin’s sinister and all-powerful colonels, with life and death decisions at every step. But the commission means he can shelter his daughter in the Hermitage and steal food for her and his best friend, Boris, from the colonel’s table.
Forty years later, grown-up Galina is an art teacher in Leningrad with a family of her own. But Boris has his own tale to tell, and when Galina puts her own artistic skills to the test, she impacts her future in the shining new St. Petersburg.
Part One, set in 1941, would make a dramatic novel in its own right; the stunning depiction of Russian suffering engages us as if we were there with Mikhail. The leap from the jeopardy of pleasing a Soviet colonel to the mature Galina in post-war Leningrad feels blunt and sudden, a missed opportunity. We get so few novels about the horror of civilian life in the siege that occurred when Nazi forces surrounded Leningrad, and yet it was every bit as chilling as the end of the war in Berlin or the Blitz in London, if not more so. Here is human survival in every form. This is an extraordinarily well-written book for a debut.