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Posted on 28 May 2019 in Fiction |

ANDREA GOLDSMITH Invented Lives. Reviewed by Jeannette Delamoir

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This new novel from the author of the award-winning The Memory Trap explores what happens when an imagined life meets reality.

The preface of Andrea Goldsmith’s Invented Lives cites Romanian author Norman Manea’s The Fifth Impossibility. ‘We are all exiles,’ writes Manea, adding that this state can be experienced by anyone, ‘in his own country, his own room, and in his own language’. Goldsmith’s novel explores the theme of exile, with a cast of characters undergoing variations of this sense of isolation.

The story begins in 1986. Book illustrator Galina Kogan literally becomes an exile when she departs the Soviet Union. Laws prohibiting emigration have been eased – but only for Jews – and she seizes the opportunity to escape Soviet anti-Semitism. A chance encounter with Melbourne artist Andrew Morrow, visiting Leningrad to study its mosaics, has inspired Galina’s choice of Australia as her destination.

The young woman leaves with only a suitcase and one trunk, forcing a poignant process of loss. The normal pain of leaving home is heightened because her mother Lidiya, a book translator – with whom Galina had planned to emigrate – has unexpectedly died before they could realise their plans. Heartache colours even the smallest choices:

What to do with Lidiya’s clothes, her mementos, her trinkets? And what about the books she had translated and the books she had loved? … How could any of them be left behind?

 In the end, the chosen items include a ‘stained and tatty’ recipe book, ‘her mother’s best gloves, her ring and pendant, her favourite shawl, and … her mother’s indoor slippers’. The deeply personal nature of these items – imbued with her mother’s physical touch – is emphasised by the Russian-language books Galina selects to take:  ‘all those with her mother’s signature inscribed on the inside cover’.

 The journey involves further emotional and cultural losses, hollowing out Galina’s sense of identity. Crossing out of the Soviet Union, she experiences a moment of terror:

And suddenly it hit her. What she had done. She was stateless. She was alone and she was stateless. She was no longer a Soviet citizen, she was no longer Russian …

 And what would happen if she were refused this passport substitute? Would she be condemned to a foreign no man’s land for the rest of her days?

But the shocks don’t end after she eventually arrives in Melbourne. Even at the airport, she is shaken to find herself unable to understand the English spoken by the airport immigration officials. When she spends the first few months with a couple of Russian origin, their observance of Jewish ritual feels strange, leading her to examine even her religious identity: ‘when you’ve been the target of anti-Semitism all your life, this actually contributes to the sort of Jew you are.’

 Within a year, she is living on her own in a converted saddlery in Carlton. Working two jobs, she now embraces ‘the earthy Australian vernacular that both confused and delighted her’. Even so, her efforts to re-invent her life as an Australian crash into internal obstacles:

She walked Australian streets, she shopped at Australian stores, she ate at Australian cafes … And all the while … [there] was a residual suspicion of other people (would she ever become trusting like the Australians?), a continuing tendency to hoard food and clothes (would she ever develop their easy materialism?), and a fear of authority coupled with the compulsion to determine the power hierarchy where she found herself (would she ever acquire their casual anti-authoritarianism?).

 Her upbringing has shaped her into a Russian ‘connoisseur of catastrophe’, she acknowledges. And while Soviet life was predictable (‘you knew exactly who you were and how you slotted into the system’), Galina is unnerved: ‘with so much freedom, it was easy to feel that no one was looking after you’.

She finds, too, that she is strangely alienated from her own lived knowledge of her homeland, because ‘Australians rarely asked her about the Soviet Union … they acted like authorities, couching statements as questions.’

In time, Galina connects again with mosaicist Andrew. Since their brief interactions in Leningrad, he has constructed an imagined life together. But although shared interests draw them together, their different ‘exiles’ get in the way of truly understanding each other. She is a geographic and cultural exile; he is isolated by shyness, and social interaction is a physical torment: ‘the blushing, the revved-up heart, the sweating, the wayward eye contact, the trembling hands, the stammering …’

Their closeness grows as he introduces her to ‘his’ Australia. His parents embrace her, hoping she may be the partner they have wished for their son. But life is not straightforward, and events unfold with nuanced, complicated ambiguity.

While Galina and Andrew’s interactions form the spine of the narrative, Andrew’s parents Sylvie and Leonard also have important roles, providing additional examples of ‘invented lives’.  Each in a different way chafes against and accommodates social expectations, which Goldsmith sets in a context of the cultural changes in 1980s Melbourne. Then Galina’s boorish uncle – who decades earlier had betrayed Galina’s grandparents in order to climb the Soviet hierarchy – unexpectedly appears at her Carlton home. He had built his old life upon untruths and ruthless betrayals, but now that it no longer serves him, he has to build one to suit his new situation.

While these characters are credible, the extent to which they enter the novel detracts from the story of Galina and Andrew. In the process, the central theme is over-emphasised. Galina and Andrew are interesting, complicated characters whose lives – as invented by the author – beg for even deeper exploration. Meanwhile the relationship between Andrew’s parents Sylvie and Leonard is imbued with tragedy and careful, limited optimism, and offers enough to have been dealt with in its own book.

In the end, however, Invented Lives resists simplifying the messiness of real life and avoids tidying up unresolvable conclusions, giving it a satisfying integrity.

Andrea Goldsmith Invented Lives Scribe 2019 PB 336pp $32.99

JeannetteDelamoir is a Queenslander and former academic who is passionate about writing, reading, culture and food.

You can buy Invented Lives from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.