Ice Road by Gillian Slovo

Ice Road

First Published: 2004 by Little, Brown (Virago ed. 2005)
My copy: Bought secondhand in paperback

Memorable quote: “But there is a limit to the things you can hide from yourself and my own limit recently has got smaller. I’ve learned to read, you see. Better that I had not for now I can read about those other Arctic expeditions and about those many Arctic deaths. My reading tells me that, no matter how bad things get, some of us will live. Some always do. The only question is how many.”

The intersection between small-scale, individual stories and the broader narratives of history and nationhood is the issue at the heart of this heavyweight historical saga. Irina Davydovna is a cleaner. She is used to being invisible, largely ignored by the important men whose offices and homes she maintains. Shielded by her illiteracy, she considers herself outside the story, an audience member rather than an actor in the volatile history of her city and her time: “What do I know of power? “Of conquest? Of position? I should not have opinions: I should not judge. What I should do instead is watch.” But Irina’s city is Leningrad, Russia; her time the volatile Soviet era of the 1930s and 40s a time and place in which nobody is exempt and where personal and national narratives cannot be so easily disentangled.

As you might expect, Ice Road is a weighty read in all respects: a hefty volume dealing with some complex and themes and a brutal period of history characterised by so much suffering and surveillance. Punctuated by chapters that narrate key moments in a manner almost reminiscent of a Greek chorus, the novel does not shy away from the politics of life under Stalin, particularly the assassination of Kirov and its resulting regime of paranoia and punishment. But, like the calm at the epicentre of a storm, these – sometimes oddly toned – impersonal chapters are actually far less powerful than the character-focused narratives, the waves emanating out from them, that show how their effects are felt.  The novel’s emotional heart is how these onslaughts affect Irina and those people she comes increasingly to care for as her core of icy detachment begins to thaw. This diverse list includes Boris Aleksandrovich, the Party member who feels his powerlessness increase along with his sense of political disillusionment; his beautiful daughter Natasha, who finds happiness with her Kolya, a model proletariat factory worker; Anton Antonovich an historian who knows the danger of looking to the past in this time of revisionism and future-focused rhetoric; and Anya, the ultimate survivor, an orphan with an unknown but doubtlessly brutal past that Anton brings into his life. Through these figures, Slovo personalises the tragedy making it at once more comprehensible and more excruciating. Not all these characters will survive, but their stories and their memories linger on even while it is illegal to speak of them.

Ice Road is bookended by two epic feats of survival. Inevitably, the novel culminates in the siege of Leningrad, but these days of starvation and endurance are prefigured, for Irina at least, by her opening experiences onboard the ill-fated Arctic  exploration ship Chelyuskin (disclaimer: I didn’t know there was polar exploration in this book when I picked it up, imagine my delight!) Irina Davydovna joins the crew of this celebrated vessel as a steward and although she strives to think of herself as quite separate from the history-making politicians, sailors and scientists, it is onboard Chelyuskin that she learns to read and, later – as the ice closes in –  comes to realise that, in order to survive, she cannot stand alone. Polar narratives typically focus on the experiences of the more privileged and educated crew members, primarily for practical reasons – since these are the individuals best equipped to record and transmit their experiences. I appreciated the way that Slovo’s uneducated, and steadfastly practical narrator inverts this trope, not just in the beautifully described Arctic wastelands, but throughout the novel. Irina consistently prioritises the everyday practicalities of lived experience over highfalutin ideologies, be they communist, romantic, nationalistic or otherwise. Sometimes frustrating, but frequently wise, she is an unforgettable creation.

Impressively researched, Ice Road also feels intensely personal. Although Slovo is writing about an unfamiliar time and place the struggle she evokes between the individual and the broader strokes of history is universal. Slovo herself was born in South Africa and it is not hard to imagine how her own experiences as the daughter of famous anti-apartheid campaigners inform both her choice of subject matter for Ice Road and the emotional power – often devastating in its understatement – that she unleashes within it. This will undoubtedly be one of my top 10 reads of 2013.

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One Response to Ice Road by Gillian Slovo

  1. Carole says:

    thanks for adding this to the “library” Cheers

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