1 September 2023 Susannah

Soviet Milk

Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

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.

It’s my first encounter with a book set in Soviet Latvia. Have you read it? Tell me your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Featured image- Nora Ikstena from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/aug/31/soviet-milk-by-nora-ikstena-review; & Soviet Milk, paperback, Amazon Australia, https://amzn.to/3qBh06b/

Comments (6)

  1. Inese Tenisons

    Hello Susannah

    Another Latvian Australian here – child of post-war displaced persons. Will seek out this book; however, I don’t think my language skills are good enough to read in Latvian. Henning Mankell wrote “The Dogs of Riga” which addresses similar themes.


    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, I’ve read The Dogs of Riga and enjoyed it, but didn’t think of it as Latvian as it is only partly set in Latvia and was written by a Swede. I didn’t realise I had so many newsletter readers with Latvian heritage.

      • INESE

        Yes, I know that Henning Mankell is Swedish – what I was referring to was the Orwellian themes of surveillance and a totalitarianism. I’m currently reading “Wifedom” by Anna Funder so it piqued my interest.
        Apparently, the book’s title in Latvian is Mātes piens, which translates to “mother’s milk. Looks like I have set myself a challenge to try and read in both languages.

        • Susannah Fullerton

          Best of luck with that challenge! I have Wifedom in my To Read pile and am looking forward to it.

  2. Astrid Lodens

    Dear Susannah. You have two devoted fans in Sydney who have a Latvian origin. I had not heard of this book (there have been many written). Shall see by if I can find a copy.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh that’s so nice. Could you read it in the original Latvian? Happy to lend it to you some time, if you are coming to one of my events?

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