Review: Splithead

From Russia with love for western ways

By Jennifer Lipman, February 18, 2011
Julya Rabinovich

Julya Rabinovich

By Julya Rabinowich (Trans: Tess Lewis)
Portobello £12.99

The conflicting politics of the Cold War were bolstered by contrasting cultural priorities between East and West - a point perfectly illustrated by Julya Rabinowich in this, her debut novel. Splithead is an account of a Jewish daughter of the Soviet Union coming to terms with a new life in Vienna.

The author, like her subject, left the USSR as a child and vividly evokes the discord between two worlds. While the adults around her are slow to adjust, seven-year-old Mischka immediately falls head-over-heels for all the trappings of Western materialism, from Barbie dolls to flavoured yoghurts and "hideous jeans".

While Mischka's early years in St Petersburg were marked by an acceptance of unanswered questions, her curiosity grows as she does.

From awkward teen to blue-haired adult punk, she develops new personas to fit in with her surroundings but struggles to piece her life together. Blending folklore and family legend, Rabinowich presents an exhaustive, occasionally uncomfortable, picture of her heroine's search for her real identity.

Originally written in German, the text is clunky in places and Rabinowich's tendency to flit constantly from one narrator to the next - and between past, present and future - can be frustrating.

But these are minor quibbles; Splithead's strength is not that of a smooth narrative or a neatly wrapped up ending. The joy lies in the bizarre, revealing details about life on both sides of the Iron Curtain; how elegance is "an offence in socialist Russia", the dogs abandoned by families fleeing the Soviet Union, or the post-1989 tension between those who stayed and those who left.

Though hardly action-packed, Splithead nonetheless offers a thrilling glimpse of a period and places known to most of us principally through major figures and big events.

But large numbers of ordinary people left their homes to escape Soviet rule and, as Rabinowich is compellingly aware, it is their stories that bring history to life.

Julya Rabinowich will appear at Jewish Book Week on March 2. Jennifer Lipman is a JC writer.

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011