Released: June 2015
Russian Tattoo succeeds Elena Gorokhova’s memoir of her early childhood, A Mountain of Crumbs. Beginning in Soviet Leningrad in 1982, when Gorokhova is 24 years old, the author describes her childhood passion for the English language and how this leads, ironically, to a passionless marriage to an American in early adulthood.
Gorokhova’s writing displays a particular skill in making the reader feel the emotions of her past self. As Gorokhova tentatively makes her way through a new life in America, the Capitalist nation that is the antithesis to her Russian Communist homeland, the reader cringes with her over every social faux pas she makes, the head bows in empathetic shame with every instance of Gorokhova’s misunderstanding of the strange new world around her.
The memoir is written with a novelist’s touch – whilst the subject matter is autobiographical, there’s no hint of drab chronological listing of events. Gorokhova weaves a rich tapestry of meaning, juxtaposing her current situation with her previous life experience, resulting in a narrative voice that does not make judgements about the course her younger self took, but instead invites the reader to take away their own interpretations. The descriptions of life in Leningrad make the memoir a fascinating insight into life behind the Iron Curtain and will make interesting reading to anyone with a leaning towards Soviet history.
It is, however, the second half of Russian Tattoo that makes it a stand out piece. Gorokhova’s honesty and unflinching rendering of her life’s trials and tribulations are testament to her writing skill. Handling topics such as rebellious teenage children, terminal illness, old age, death, anger, familial relationships, remorse, grief, loneliness, regret and belonging Gorokhova proves that life is often stranger than fiction and that, above all, life is what you make it. The refrain of Gorokhova’s husband rings out clear and true: ‘this is your hand – stop wishing for a better one and learn how to play the one you’ve got’.
Emotional roller coaster is too trite a term to describe the real experiences of a human life lived, but it’s about the most succinct way to describe Gorokhova’s beautiful memoir. Perhaps the most prominent lesson to take away from Russian Tattoo is that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, or where you’re going, life happens to us all. And you’d just better not be prepared for it, because it’ll never intrude when you expect anyway. One of the most touching memoirs I’ve ever read; I defy you not to shed a tear.