This is a very fine novel. It starts slowly, as the characters and story are set up. At first, I was a bit irritated by the use of full stops, around one word, as a form of emphasis. I also speculated on whether Gillian Slovo had taken on the difficult task of creating a novel based around Stalin’s purges and the siege of Stalingrad in order to explore how her father could have stayed so long committed to international communism.
But as I reached the body of the novel, I was gripped and mesmerised. The purges are played out and made comprehensible through the experiences and responses of one small network of family and friends. I think I understand this period of history better after reading Ice Road than I ever have before. We know that revolutions tend to go on to consume themselves in this way but the mixture of pride in the revolution, loyalty to party and country and personal fear mixed with aspiration was so realistic, it even led me to comparisons with today’s Parliamentary Labour Party!
The characters in the novel live in very different circumstances than we might ever face and yet they come alive and become real in a day-to-day kind of way. The circumstances are a melodrama of history. The people, or more accurately, the women – who are the main characters – are very normal people living through dramatic and terrible times. But they are so understandable that they make the times real and understandable for us.
The main narrator is a cleaner who is beaten by her husband then picked to accompany an heroic expedition to the Arctic. The popularity and suffering of the expedition enlarges her and we see her go on to strengthen and grow as the story unfolds. The beautiful young Natasha is our central character but she suffers terribly from the purge, an unhappy marriage and a powerful and deeply sexual love affair and at last we find a moving sexual relationship described in a way that enhances rather than degrades the wonder of powerful sex. Her motherhood is in the end the one thing that keeps her going. The orphan Anya is a strange, damaged, abandoned child but she also grows and flourishes in her own complicated way.
There are men in the story and they are real, likeable and complicated. But the women are the stronger characters and so real that I feel as though I know them. None of the life stories or relationships is easy or trite. But the capacity to grow, love and endure lies behind the story of each of our main characters. And thus, this is a strangely optimistic book, set in very grim times and avoiding none of the suffering or cruelty, yet leaving a sense of the dignity, hope and courage that adversity sometimes brings out in the human conditions.
There is also a deep feel for nature in the book – for the cold, the ice and the snow. Always the weather is there and it makes the book feel deeply authentic. Though how a young woman who grew up with the warmth and beauty of South Africa can evoke the ice of the Arctic and the beauty and pain of the freezing cold of a Russian winter is difficult to imagine.