I have never before read a novel set in Latvia and written by a Latvian, but I’ve just finished Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena. It’s been a best-seller in Latvia and the Baltic countries, and in 2018 was translated into English.
The short novel shows the effects of Soviet rule on a nameless woman who works as a doctor. She incurs the disapproval of a powerful man and, as a result, she is deprived of her professional future, banished to the countryside, and cut off from the work and research she loves. Her relationships with her daughter and her parents are seriously damaged. She’s in danger of losing her identity, finds comfort in coffee, cigarettes and pills, and grows increasingly isolated. The story begins at the end of World War II, and ends with the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is narrated by the alternating perspectives of mother and her also nameless daughter.
Soviet Milk is not a comfortable novel, but it is a powerful one. It depicts a grim era of Communist authority and its power over every aspect of a person’s life. There’s a sense of grim foreboding throughout the story. Everyone has to be careful what they say, what they read, where they go, and who they visit. The book is also a reminder of how easily that oppressive regime could return if Europe fails to defend the freedom of such nations as Ukraine.
The book won, and was short-listed for, various literary prizes in Europe. Nora Ikstena was born in Riga in 1969 and helped establish the Latvian Literature Centre. She is the author of over 20 books.