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20 November 2018

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Book Review

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Mother Tongue

By Julie Mayhew (Hot Key, £7.99)

It is not long into Mother Tongue before sufficient hints are laid down that a tragedy is coming – one which we wish we could forget, and that here is not directly named, but which will forever loom darkly heavily at the edge of memory.

But the thing about mass tragedies, particularly those involving children, is that we grieve for the affected families but normally have little sense of what they must go through, how they continue living.

In this tight, powerfully affecting novel, Mayhew gives us a glimpse of such sadness and pain, yet swiftly lifts us out of the darkness and into the big heart of Darya, as she seeks a path toward the light, toward life.

Moorless after the tragedy, Darya scours the corners of her life for meaning, finally deciding that she must move to Moscow for a new start. And, unlike the sisters in Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” (a play that Darya carries with her), she attains her goal.

But of course the capital exists to chew up and spit out provincials like Darya, and, as she wisely notes near the book’s ending, “After you get the thing you wanted most in the world, what then?”

Mayhew is a wonderful storyteller and has done what few foreign authors can do successfully: she has crawled into and inhabited Russian reality. And she has crafted a character in Darya that gleams with hope and grit. A truly moving novel.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Mar/Apr 2017