Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena – review

Published by Peirene Press

Publication date – 1 March 2018

Source – review copy

Translated by Margita Gailitis

This novel considers the effects of Soviet rule on a single individual. The central character in the story tries to follow her calling as a doctor. But then the state steps in. She is deprived first of her professional future, then of her identity and finally of her relationship with her daughter. Banished to a village in the Latvian countryside, her sense of isolation increases. Will she and her daughter be able to return to Riga when political change begins to stir?

Soviet Milk follows the life of an unnamed doctor in Soviet governed Latvia. Her narration is interspersed with that of her daughter, also unnamed. The story follows the mother’s battle with depression and her enforced exile to the Latvian countryside by the Government and the daughter’s struggle to show her mother reasons for living.

This is a short novel,  and like all Peirene books, one that can easily be read in a couple of hours. Also like other Peirene books it is a no less effective and impacting because of its short size. The prose pulls the reader into the story, transporting them to an easily imagined Soviet run Latvia. There is a bleakness to the tale, one interspersed with the hope of youth, the sense of change that can be felt in the air as the younger woman grows. As she ages she comes to quietly question the norm of communist rule, seeking out renegades and those fighting the system without even realising it. Her mother, conversely, was once one of those who questioned the system but has now come to feel freedom from it will never been obtained.

The writing is descriptive yet paired down. There is a detachment from the narrative due to the lack of names, but yet that too lends an intimacy to the tale.

This is by no means a cheery story, however, the development of the relationship between the mother and daughter lifts the gloom, in a realistic, understated way.

Each time I read a Peirene novel I’m introduced to literature I would not usually have access to. It is eye-opening, informative and thought-provoking. A worth addition to the Peirene family.

About the author

Nora Ikstena was born in 1969 in Riga, Latvia. She studied at the University of Latvia before moving to New York. On her return to the Baltics she helped establish the Latvian Literature Centre. She published her first novel, Celebration of Life, in 1998 and has written over twenty books since. She has won numerous awards, such as the Order of the Three Stars for Services to Literature and the Baltic Assembly Prize. Soviet Milk, her most recent novel, won the 2015 Annual Latvian Literature Award (LALIGABA) for Best Prose.

About the translator

Margita Gailitis has translated some of Latvia’s finest poetry and prose into English, including Sandra Kalmiete’s With Dance Shoes in Sibirian Snows and Māra Zālīte’s Five Fingers. Soviet Milk is her first translation for Peirene Press.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Another excellent one from Peirene, I hope it makes the long list for the MBI Prize coming up!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      I’ll be interested to see if it makes the list. It’s an interesting and absorbing read.


  2. Peirene are a truly brilliant publisher. Everything I’ve read by them has been so affecting. This sounds just as fascinating as the others I’ve read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      Each book of theirs I read is different but fits their portfolio perfectly. I think you’d like this. Let me know what you make of it if you read it.

      Liked by 1 person

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