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Review: Matryoshka by Katherine Johnson

Matryoshka 
Katherine Johnson
Ventura Press
2018, 324p
Uncorrected proof copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

When Sara Rose returns to live in her recently deceased grandmother’s Tasmanian cottage, her past and that of her mother and grandmother is ever-present. Sara’s grandmother, Nina Barsova, a Russian post-war immigrant, lovingly raised Sara in the cottage at the foot of Mt Wellington but without ever explaining why Sara’s own mother, Helena, abandoned her as a baby.

Sara, a geneticist, also longs to know the identity of her father, and Helena won’t tell her. Now, estranged not only from her mother, but also from her husband, Sara raises her daughter, Ellie, with a central wish to spare her the same feeling of abandonment that she experienced as a child.

When Sara meets an Afghani refugee separated from his beloved wife and family, she decides to try to repair relations with Helena – but when a lie told by her grandmother years before begins to unravel, a darker truth than she could ever imagine is revealed.

Matryoshka is a haunting and beautifully written story about the power of maternal love, and the danger of secrets passed down through generations.

This was such an interesting story – almost two stories that become one.

Sara is a geneticist living in Brisbane, separated from her husband with a young daughter. Sara isn’t really coping well with the separation so when the death of her grandmother results in her leaving Sara her Tasmanian cottage, Sara sees opportunity. What starts as a visit for her and her daughter Ellie ends up being a permanent move back to where she grew up. As Sara settles into her new/old community she meets new people, including an asylum seeker who invites her in for tea and shares his story. This chance meeting that develops into a friendship has a profound impact on Sara, who extends an olive branch to her own mother from whom she is mostly estranged and will finally enable her to solve the greatest mystery of her life – the identity of her own father.

The author lives in Tasmania and I read that she herself became friends with an asylum seeker the same way that Sara does, weaving this into the story as another way to get these stories out there, to humanise those who are coming here from other nations, rather than just seeing them as faceless queues on boats, as most of Canberra would have the people believe. I think before I read this, I enjoyed the inclusion of Abdhul and the community of those in Sara’s neighbourhood in limbo but I didn’t really understand why it had been included in the story. Now I do – any platform at someone’s disposal is there to be utilised and it tied with with the story of Sara’s own grandmother, a Russian immigrant who came after the war.

In some ways the treatment of Abdhul shows how little we have come as a nation since the post WWII waves of immigration. I’ve spoken at length before of my own parents-in-law, who both came here separately in the 50s and settled in a small Victorian town. There was plenty of hostility, even for those who didn’t even look ‘different’ in terms of physical features. That hostility seems to increase for those of different ethnic backgrounds. There are probably countless stories out there, just like Abdhul’s, which is based on the real person that the author knows. It’s important to hear these stories, to change the narrative, to change a public perception. I really enjoyed the way the hospitality of these people was detailed – they don’t have much but they welcome Sara far more warmly than others in the neighbourhood, inviting her to their celebrations and sharing pieces of themselves with her. They even give her an idea for a research project and are happy to participate in the hope that it might show something to improve the refugee process.

I think the move to Tasmania suits Sara for several reasons – firstly she was raised by her grandmother in that house and she and her grandmother had a hugely intense bond, for reasons that I won’t spoil here but are detailed within the story. She feels close to her grandmother in the small cottage, surrounded by her things. But for Sara it’s also a knee-jerk reaction to her separation from husband Ian and perhaps even a deliberately spiteful move, to take their daughter thousands of kilometres away. Which you know, I actually kind of appreciated. It felt realistic. It gives her a way to not have to deal with her ex on a regular basis as well, who has had no hesitation in moving on. Sara and Ian’s separation has them both doing unkind things to each other – a separation often has people not at their best and through this somewhat childish back and forth seems to be the way for them both to find a sort of harmony in the future. Which sort of mirrors Sara’s relationship with her mother too, which has always been quite fraught. Sara has a lot of opinions about things and I think she makes a lot of assumptions too. What she discovers when she moves to Tasmania means that the truth eventually comes out and Sara and her mother are able to start moving forward and developing a proper relationship.

I enjoyed all the aspects of this novel and reading the background of the story tied everything in nicely for me. I think Sara’s budding friendship with Abdhul and his fellow refugees is lovely and I also really liked her story of finding herself and happiness in all aspects of her life, not just romantically.

8/10

Book #174 of 2018

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