Russian Bookshelf: ‘The Time of Women’ by Elena Chizhova

It’s great to stay at home the day after Christmas and finally do something you haven’t had time to do all year, right? Like make tea, sit in your armchair with a good book. In this issue of Russian Bookshelf, you can listen to the first chapter of Russian Booker Prize winner Elena Chizhova’s book The Time of Women.

Translated by Simon Patterson & Nina Chordas (Glagoslav Publications), narrated by Raz Mason, edited by Daria Donina, music by Artemiy Boronin & Ilya Boronin, illustration by Ivanna Mikhailenko

Born in Leningrad in 1957, Elena Chizhova worked as an economist, teacher and entrepreneur until a rescue from a burning cruise ship in 1996 inspired a change in her life focus. Since that time she has been overcome by the longing for writing. Elena Chizhova made her debut with Zinnober's Poppets in the magazine “Zvezda” (“The Star”) in 2000. She has gone on to be nominated for and to win several prestigious literary awards, including the shortlist Russian Booker Prize in 2003 and 2005, and the Russian Booker prize for The Time of Women in 2009.

Elena Chizhova's book The Time of Women weaves together the personal and historical struggles of mothers, daughters, grandmothers, and women who become sisters through сircumstance in “a secret culture of resistance and remembrance”.

The novel  captures the atmosphere of a communal apartment of the early 1960s, where memories of starvation and death in first cataclysmic half of the century, as well as the loss of their own children, have receded in the background of everyday worries – such as how to preserve flour from one season to the next, or how to afford a wool suit for the 7-year-old girl. Here the author gives priority of voice to the grandmothers who having lost their families in the World War II siege of Leningrad and quietly tell their stories to the future writer during confidential conversations at home. Chizhova uses these scraps of stories to form base of her narrative, voicing the terrible facts of the siege in contrast to official versions from Soviet books.

The novel features a variety of characters representing a collage of Soviet society, which only seems to be equal and to treat all its citizens alike: the aristocracy, the clerisy, villagers secretly mocking communist ideals while hoping only for God's help, low-level party officials, trade union members ardently loyal to the Soviet Union, factory workers just starting to believe in the benefits of Soviet society and hoping that one day it will actually be possible to have a washing machine at home. The emotional tension of the book with its complicated narrative structure, transferring the speaking voice from one character to another, has aroused the interest of theater directors: it has been successfully realized as a play by the famous Moscow Sovremennik Theater "Sovremennik" and the Saint Petersburg Tovstonogov Bolshoi Drama Theater.

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