THE TIME OF WOMEN is Simon Patterson and Nina Chordas's translation of Elena Chizhova's 2009 Russian Booker-winning novel Vremia zhenshchin. (Modeled on the Booker Prize in Britain, the Russian Booker is given to the best Russian-language text; Chizhova had been nominated for the award twice before). Set in Chizhova's native St. Petersburg, mostly in the 1960s, when the city was known as Leningrad, this most beautiful, yet most maddening city emerges as a central focus of the narrative, as it often has in Russian literature, from Gogol to Dostoevsky to Andrey Bely. Chizhova's five female protagonists take turns narrating the story. Antonina (Tonya) Bespalova, a factory worker who comes from the country, falls in love with and is impregnated and abandoned by a slick city guy. Antonina becomes a single mother to Suzanna, who at six years old is mute. They move in with three old women who in effect become Suzanna's grandmothers: Yevdokia, who comes from peasant stock; Glikeria, whose parents were serfs but who was herself engaged to the count who employed them; and Ariadna, who was born into a prosperous family and received an education that included French. When Antonina becomes ill with cancer, the three grandmothers come up with a plan to keep Suzanna — whom they call Sofia after baptizing her in secret — out of the orphanage, a plot that involves Antonina marrying Nikolai, whom she does not love, in order for him to formally assume the child's guardianship.
This fairly straightforward plotline contrasts with the novel's complicated narrative style. The novel's multiple points of view are not immediately distinguishable. Suzanna's narration frames the text: the novel bears the dedication "To my grandmothers," and it begins with a short chapter of Suzanna's memory of her mother's funeral and ends with a chapter of reminiscences of her grandmothers. Within this frame, other characters narrate the nine different sections of the novel (the translation offers a Contents section that is absent from the original), each one titled after that particular person — e.g., "The Mother," "The Daughter." The other main narrators are Antonina and the three grandmothers, along with Nikolai ("The Stepfather") and Solomon, Glikeria's former lover. But there are multiple points of view within the sections themselves, so that, for example, the "Yevdokia" section, which starts out from Yevdokia's first-person point of view, also contains sections from Antonina's; at the same time, Suzanna continually comments on the action, with her thoughts interspersed throughout the entire text in italics. Given that Chizhova often omits attribution of dialogue, reading The Time of Women requires vigilance on the reader's part, especially in the beginning.
The Time of Women, like much contemporary Russian literature, explores the effects of the Soviet legacy on the country's inhabitants. Describing the Russian people's experiences, Yevdokia says, "You can't even imagine in hell the things that have happened on earth," a line that serves as a distillation of the entire novel. The Time of Women underscores how modern Russian self-identity is inextricably linked with the scars, both physical and psychological, of the Soviet era. On the more "benign" side, Soviet citizens are subjected to daily privations: a chronic lack of housing, forcing Antonina and the three grandmothers to live in a communal apartment and ...read more