The Girl from the Hermitage
Galina was born into a world of horrors. So why does she mourn its passing?
It is December 1941, and eight-year-old Galina and her friend Vera are caught in the siege of Leningrad, eating wallpaper soup and dead rats. Galina’s artist father Mikhail has been kept away from the front to help save the treasures of the Hermitage. Its cellars could provide a safe haven, as long as Mikhail can survive the perils of a commission from one of Stalin’s colonels.
Three decades on, Galina is a teacher at the Leningrad Art Institute. What ought to be a celebratory weekend at her forest dacha turns sour when she makes an unwelcome discovery. The painting she starts that day will hold a grim significance for the rest of her life, as the old Soviet Union makes way for the new Russia and her world changes out of all recognition.
Warm, wise and utterly enthralling, Molly Gartland’s debut novel guides us from the old communist era, with its obvious terrors and its more surprising comforts, into the bling of 21st-century St Petersburg. Galina’s story is an insightful meditation on ageing and nostalgia as well as a compelling page-turner.
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Originally from Michigan, Molly Gartland worked in Moscow from 1994 to 2000 and has been fascinated by Russian culture ever since.
She has an MA in Creative Writing from St Mary’s University, Twickenham and lives in London.
The manuscript for her debut novel The Girl from the Hermitage was shortlisted for the Impress Prize and longlisted for the Mslexia Novel Competition, the Bath Novel Award and Grindstone Novel Award.
Social Media Links – @molbobolly Twitter
Sometimes, you just know when you’re reading something special. From the opening scene, I had no doubt this would be an exceptional story.
As Mikhail scrapes a strip of wallpaper for that night’s soup to share with his daughter, Galina, the mood is set to perfection. What he can offer her is not enough, he knows that all too well, but he’s doing his best. Having lost his wife not long ago, she is all he has, and all that matters.
When he is commissioned to paint a portrait of The Colonel’s two sons, despite his misgivings, he knows he has to do it. For Galina. Moving in to The Hermitage is an added bonus. There’s more food available, as well as place for him to work. The moment the job starts, and he arrives at the colonel’s home, he is met with opulence and affluence. Theirs is a life so far removed from his own and so many others in Leningrad. Stealing a few biscuits and an apple or two here and there to take home to Galina is a risk he is willing to take. When so few have so much, how can it possibly be wrong? Yet, he knows it is wrong, and fears the consequences if he should be caught.
These slight touches of humanity speak volumes. And, it is with such humility that Galina grows into adulthood. A talented artist like her father, the story progresses forward and depicts Galina’s life through the decades as a wife, mother, grandmother and friend. Family matters become her priority as society changes and more prosperity comes her way, though she never quite gets used to the “bling” lifestyle of her son and his family. Galina is very much a product of her upbringing.
The story has a biographical quality to it, and in that sense it is quite slow, yet rich in detail, and the world of art and painting is woven through every event connecting the generations.
Beautifully written, highly absorbing and hugely fascinating.
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