Review: The Wine of Solitude

Heroine corroded by a desire for revenge


By Irène Némirovsky
Chatto & Windus, £14.99

Hélène, the heroine of The Wine of Solitude, hates her mother, Bella, with an intense, brooding dislike. As a small child, she simmers with toxic resentment at family meals around the grand dining table at their home in the privileged part of Kiev, at which she is subjected to a hail of criticism,

"Just look at you… you look as if you've just been slapped with your mouth open and your bottom lip drooping… I do believe this child is turning into an idiot!" rails the petulant mother. In response, the daughter fantasises vengeance - "she had to kiss the pale face she so hated… place her closed mouth against the cheek she wanted to lacerate with her nails".

As she grows older, the well-hidden rage increases - against her mother's criticisms, extravagance, and lavish, romantic life with her lover Max, who lives off her increasingly vast wealth and that of her conveniently absent husband, Boris.

The story of this neglected child, ignored by both parents (her father takes her out one evening and abandons her for hours in the lobby "like a piece of left luggage" while he gambles into the early hours) is largely the life of Irène Némirovsky herself.

Like her creator, Hélène is an only child, born to a rich but uneducated couple whose banking fortunes balloon in the early years of the 20th century in Imperial Russia. When the Revolution threatens, the family organise a daring, 11th-hour dash into Finland.

They live in hiding for nearly two years as civil war rages across the border in Russia. The book's prolonged introspection is briefly punctuated with reports of nearby massacres and conflicts but the fundamental perspective is that of a teenage girl at odds with her parents and looking for love.

The family finally find a home in France, a country for which Hélène/Irène has an admiration as fierce as the contempt she exudes towards her spendthrift, nouveau riche parents.

The Wine of Solitude should be among the most compelling of this talented author's recently released work but, for all its authentic background and events - and its many brilliant observations - it conveys a cold detachment.

After the succès fou of the posthumous Suite Française only five years ago, the Némirovsky books and stories, all flawlessly translated by Sandra Smith, have kept coming with intriguing regularity.

Her earlier work - The Dogs and the Wolves, All Our Worldly Goods, The Courilof Affair - continued to surprise and delight. But The Wine of Solitude falls short of these.

It does contain descriptions of great lyricism: the darkened, freezing city of Kiev at dusk and the hushed, snowbound idyll of the family's Finnish haven are brilliantly realised. But Hélène's unremitting yearning for revenge in the face of the apparently motiveless malignity of her mother, obscures all else.

A sour, unforgiving cynicism infuses the entire book and we are left with sympathy for no one - not the eventually betrayed mother, not the self-indulgent father or the abandoned lover and certainly not, strangely, for the damaged little girl who becomes a hard-hearted, manipulative adult.

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