Whatever is eating her brain consumes only the fresher memories, the unripe moments. Her distant past is preserved, better than preserved. Moments that occurred in Leningrad sixty-some years ago reappear, vivid, plump, and perfumed. -From The Madonnas of Leningrad, page 5-
As the Nazis advanced on Leningrad in 1941, the staff of the Hermitage Museum began evacuating their treasured art, packing up more than 1.1 million objects, but leaving the empty picture frames hanging on the museum walls as a promise that the art would some day be rehung. When the Nazis lay siege to Leningrad, the Hermitage staff and their families (more than 2000 people) were forced to live in the museum’s basement in horrific conditions. Many starved before the siege was over. Debra Dean’s novel The Madonnas of Leningrad is set during this dark moment in history.
The main character of Dean’s stunning novel is an elderly woman named Marina who is slowly sliding into the final stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. As the disease advances, Marina’s memories of the siege which she has buried for years begin to surface and Marina slips from the present into the past. Dean’s portrayal of a young girl surviving the conditions of war is beautifully wrought. She shows us how Marina – with the help of an older woman named Anya – builds a “memory palace” in her mind, recreating the museum and all its gorgeous works of art – a place where the many Madonnas hang in exquisite perfection.
“They don’t teach this in school anymore?” Anya asks and clucks in dismay. “When I was a girl, we made memory palaces to help us memorize for our examinations. You chose an actual place, a place worked best, but any building with lots of rooms would do, and then you refurnished it with with whatever you wished to remember.” -From The Madonnas of Leningrad, page 68-
The Madonnas of Leningrad is a radiant novel about the tenuous nature of memory, the power of imagination, the endurance of love, and the sad descent into Alzheimer’s disease. Written with a strong sense of place with many fine details of art and the museum itself, Debra Dean’s first novel is a treasure.