Vesna Goldsworthy dedicates her third novel to “my friends who, like me, grew up east of this line from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic”. Its gloriously vivid history moves from 1981 to 1990, as the Iron Curtain – along with the old Soviet certainties – weakens and falls. Its narrator trades east for west for love, but struggles to find happiness in either.
Milena Urbanska is the daughter of the second most powerful man on an unnamed Russian satellite. The state has “possessed manners and a wretched coast,” but its own is a life of Ray-Bans, Yves Saint Laurent leotards and the latest fridge-freezers. The barrier to the west may be porous for the powerful, but the apathetic Milena guards her own privacy with adolescent rigor. She wraps her black-clad body in neoclassical mansions and lakeside retreats, and quivers with fury when her essay is called for nepotist praise at a school ceremony. After her boyfriend (the owner of Evita’s “only LP this side of the Iron Curtain”) dies in an accident, she asks dad for a translation job, numbing her trauma with a succession of studies on the corn cultivation. When a rare literary conference is announced, she agrees to follow Jason, a visiting English poet.
The man who will change his life arrives in an Aran sweater and sneakers “the color of a urine sample”. Jason is flippant and charismatic and, intoxicated with novelty and her beautiful narrow face, Milena falls in love. A few months later, she takes a flight to England, where drab skies, beds strewn with mugs and new threats await her.
Like its protagonist, Goldsworthy came through the Iron Curtain in the 1980s, emigrating from Serbia to London to live with her British husband and working for the BBC before writing memoirs, poetry and now thoughtful atmospheric novels. She builds her story in wonderfully evocative detail, and as Milena shifts from her wary homeland’s conformity to England, bubbles of humor burst in Goldsworthy’s bittersweet brew.
During a visit to Jason’s parents’ heap of underheated country, his mother pulls out an eerily believable assortment of burnt Brussels sprouts, sulfurous cabbage and “fat and shiny” ravioli from her many ovens. Goldsworthy gives Milena sharp answers to British bombast and blithely pierces the clichés of London romance: In Kensington Gardens, lovers watch “ducks waddle and defecate round its edge, and grown men play with sailboats remote-controlled miniatures.
There is an escape here, of sorts. Sex with Jason is joyful, and London’s neighborhood stores offer a comforting sense of community and routine. The babies arrive, “very small and wrinkled under the pressure of the belly, like two warm brioche loaves”. In the country, farm-strewn fields stretch wet “like kelp to an unseen sea”, a lyrical contrast to the war-torn lands and collective farms of home.
But foreboding darkens each finely rendered setting. It comes from Soviet agents, self-absorbed Jason, and the headstrong and troubled Milena herself. Earlier Goldsworthy novels used a cast of London émigrés to continue Anna Karenina’s story and tell The Great Gatsby. In Iron Curtain Jason writes a volume of sonnets titled The Argonauts, while Milena can be read as a version of Medea, who followed her lover west and ended his stay with a vengeance.
As the 1990s dawned, the great divide that Milena traversed is no more, and scruffy, old-fashioned London is being remade into a financial capital. Even an elite child can be left behind as the tides of history turn. Yet while Iron Curtain is often pessimistic about the world of its lonely heroine, this is no classic tragedy. The pages roll by and Goldsworthy’s scrutiny brings warmth and sympathy to his story of belonging and betrayal. Tense, brooding and often hilarious, Iron Curtain finds bright sparks as well as sadness in the dying embers of the Cold War.