What initially drew me to reviewing historian Maria Tumarkin’s memoir, Otherland, was my interest in its themes. Maria left her birthplace, the Soviet Union, in 1989 as part of the Jewish emigration to Australia before the Berlin wall fell. The premise of Otherland is to tell the story of Maria’s trip back to her motherland with her teengage daughter, Billie. I haven’t read any of Maria’s other books and so I took on the project with a high level of enthusiasm – there are too few migrant stories by Australian authors and I am all for promoting them. But anyone who is familiar with my writing knows that I can be no less than honest and so apologies, in advance, to Maria (and Billie) for what I’m about to say because I feel like I have got to know them, on some level, through the narrative. There have been several discussions here on the blog about the state of the reviewing process but I am hoping that people understand this is just the opinion of one reader, which is entirely subjective.
The blurb of Otherland promises an exciting, emotional journey:
I left too early, before tanks rolled into Moscow in 1991, and before Gorbacev was put under house arrest in a failed coup. I left before Russia and Ukraine became separate countries…I left too early, I missed the whole point…Otherland is the story of a six-week trip transversing three generations, three lifetimes and three profoundly interconnected relationships between mothers and daughters.
From the first few passages of Otherland I felt as if I was in the hands of a master. The language was tight and some of the imagery was superb:
The boy I was in love with was, in turn, in love with another girl infinitely better looking and talented, who, for her part, was in love with another boy better looking and arguably more talented than the object of my unrequited and poorly concealed affection. In this love pyramid, I was at the very bottom, flattened beyond recognition.
But not too far into the book I was niggled by a few passages where Maria ‘tells’ the reader what Billie, her daughter, is like. A little further and Maria is referring to a Greek born, French novelist to highlight the similarities between her story as a migrant and his when what I was really yearning for was a scene from Maria’s own life, flashes of her own experiences, to show us this. On from this Maria discloses she has a son but mentions nothing of who is caring for him and at that point I was lost and I wasn’t sure what time period I was in, what Maria’s situation is (married, divorced?) or how many times Billie had been back to the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the initial train journey at the beginning of the book where they are asked to vacate because they didn’t have the appropriate visas is abandoned (till much later on) and another scene picked up, and the tenses jar which leads to further confusion.
Otherland is divided up into locations and time periods but the narrative is jumpy. One minute Maria is referring to the now, then she is back in Australia, then she is referring to what this novelist said, or this poet said, what this historian said. Maria touches on interesting concepts and ideas relating to migrants but they are disorganised and aren’t explored to their full potential. The narrative doesn’t flow from one scene into the next and so this leaves the reader feeling disconnected and frustrated. The references to other historical figures yank the reader out of the narrative, preventing them from going on the emotional journey. They stop the reader from getting to know the characters on a deeper level, to feel their pain and joy. The dialogue is forced and there is a lot of telling about how the characters are instead of showing us how they are. Because of this I didn’t feel I connected with any of the characters and felt distant from Billie and Maria when I really wanted to get to know them on a more intimate level.
There is no doubt that Maria is an intelligent writer and historian, and I credit her for this, but the biggest downfall of Otherland is that it promises an emotional journey (from the cover, blurb and initial pages) then delivers an intellectual one. No doubt fans of political or historical literature will enjoy Maria’s observations and clever references, but readers wanting an emotional journey (me!) will be disappointed. I wanted to know more about Maria’s life in Australia, what happened in her life to warrant her to take this trip other than to show Billie. What happened in the years before she left and the years between her immigration to Australia and this trip? I wanted family scenes and dynamics, struggles, character relationships. But I felt as if Maria was trying hard to protect her privacy which she has every right to, but that meant that the narrative suffered as a consequence. Maybe Maria covered all this in her previous books but Otherland is not a sequel and so it needs to stand alone as a story. I felt that Otherland was packaged as creative non-fiction when it actually leans more towards a historical analysis. Readers looking for this kind of read will not be disappointed.